Rimrock Stages is closer to driving bus routes again

2013-07-01T17:00:00Z 2013-07-02T10:24:14Z Rimrock Stages is closer to driving bus routes againBy JAN FALSTAD jfalstad@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The U.S. Department of Transportation has lifted its March shutdown order against Rimrock Stages of Billings for safety violations.

But Rimrock’s buses can’t roll again until the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reinstates the company’s operating authority.

On March 22, FMCSA inspectors issued an “out-of-service order” that immediately halted Rimrock buses for “imminently hazardous” safety violations. The three-month shutdown has put Rimrock’s cash flow critically low, said company president Thorm Forseth.

“With nothing coming in and spending the money we have on equipment, it’s getting pretty dicey,” he said.

The company submitted the required paperwork to get reinstated weeks ago, Forseth said, but he has no idea what lies ahead or how long it will take.

“It’s such a process no one has had experience with,” he said. “It’s more unknowable than knowable.”

A FMCSA spokesman in Washington, D.C., said he couldn’t comment on when a decision on Rimrock’s permit will be made.

Since the shutdown, Rimrock has been upgrading and repairing its buses. Eight of 11 have passed federal inspection and are deemed “roadworthy and safe,” Forseth said. The other three were basically parked and not actively used before the shutdown.

If Rimrock is deemed operational again, the bus line would streamline its Montana routes, Forseth said.

The bus company would keep the three daily trips between Billings and Missoula, including two trips through Butte and one through Helena, Forseth said.

The carrier also would be likely to resume its Great Falls-Helena-Butte route but drop the Billings-Fargo routes that Jefferson Lines of Minneapolis picked up in late March.

In early April, Salt Lake Express of Rexburg, Idaho, temporarily took over the Interstate 15 Helena-Great Falls route and a Missoula-Helena-Billings route.

Forseth also showed little interest in resuming the Missoula-Whitefish-Kalispell route, which no one is serving now. If Rimrock doesn’t get the green light to drive again in a couple of weeks, the Montana Department of Transportation may give some of the federal funding it was giving to Rimrock Stages to Salt Lake Express.

Transit section supervisor David Jacobs in Helena said the Missoula-Kalispell trips are unprofitable without the subsidies.

If the out-of-state bus companies hadn’t filled the void, bus travelers trying to cross Montana would continue to face 600-mile detours south to Denver or Salt Lake City.

“It was pretty disruptive at the beginning,” Jacobs said. “It was really nice to have Jefferson and Salt Lake Express step up and continue the service.”

Some of Rimrock’s drivers who are knowledgeable about Montana routes went to work for Jefferson Lines and Salt Lake Express.

Rimrock’s suspension was one of many across the country this year after FMCSA set up an “Operation Quick Strike” team to crack down on safety problems.

The strike team this year has shut down 21 bus companies and eight trucking companies and has suspended six commercial drivers.

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