Buses will start rolling again Sunday between Billings and Missoula, a start to replacing some of the Rimrock Stages lines that were shut down one week ago.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration inspectors shut down the Billings-based carrier for “imminently hazardous” safety violations.
Jefferson Lines, based in St. Paul, Minn., is the first regional carrier to step up to provide limited “stopgap service” for one of the Rimrock Stages routes.
The Minnesota carrier will start one daily round-trip run along Interstate 90 connecting Billings to Missoula through Butte, according to Missoula transportation consultant Lisa Ballard, who helped coordinate the deal.
The first bus will leave Billings at 1:45 a.m. Sunday, an attendant at the Billings bus station said Friday night.
“It’s the route that ties the country together, so it’s not good times for Montana, but at least it’s something,” Ballard said.
Also, Jefferson Lines will be extending its current Fargo-Grand Forks-Highway 2-Sidney-to-Glendive run into Billings, she said.
Then, as early as April 5, Salt Lake Express, out of Rexburg, Idaho, may start two additional round trips from Billings to Missoula, one through Butte and one through Helena, Ballard said.
Rimrock Stages had three daily runs between Billings and Missoula, she said.
Other carriers are looking at reestablishing three other routes: Great Falls-Helena-Butte, Whitefish-Kalispell-Missoula and Billings-Dickinson-Bismarck-Fargo. If this happens, Ballard said most, or all, of Montana’s major cities could have bus routes again, perhaps at the same frequency as Rimrock Stages’ routes.
With the permission of Rimrock Stages, Ballard said she provided Jefferson Lines and Salt Lake Express lists of Rimrock’s drivers, so they can hire drivers familiar with the state.
“They are trying to hire Montana drivers and get them through the drug testing by the U.S. Department of Transportation,” she said. “It might take a week.”
Jefferson Lines was founded in 1919 and provides bus service to about a dozen states.
Ballard started her company, Current Transportation Solutions Inc., in 2004 in Bozeman and now operates out of Missoula.
In the week since Rimrock Stages was shut down, passengers trying to travel by bus from Spokane, Wash., to Minneapolis faced detours of more than 600 miles, traveling south to Salt Lake City or Denver. The service interruptions also caused financial harm to bus companies in neighboring states that connected with Rimrock, Ballard said.
On March 22, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an Out-of-Service Order requiring that Rimrock Stages cease all operations until it takes corrective measures and complies with the latest DOT safety initiative. The DOT characterized the safety conditions as an “imminently hazardous and potentially deadly risk.”
The Billings company has operated a bus service for 38 years.
Filling some of the service gaps is a question of logistics and economics, Ballard said.
“Each of the companies needs to provide service with the resources that they have without stretching themselves too thin,” she said. “I think everybody is hoping that Rimrock will get back in business. We just don’t know if it will take a month or more.”
To check schedules or buy a ticket on Jefferson Lines, go to: www.jeffersonlines.com or call 800-451-5333.