People on the Crow Reservation and throughout Big Horn County have a new way to travel.
Crow Nation Transit is up and running, with two mini-buses and a conversion van transporting people on three routes, with more buses and routes planned over the next several months.
Even the initial morning and evening routes from Wyola to Billings, Billings to Wyola, via Pryor and Crow Agency to Fort Smith aren’t set in stone.
“It will take about another two weeks before we can finalize the routes,” said Transit Director Oliver Hill. “Right now we’re kind of on a trial basis on each route.”
Talks began about four years ago over whether to pursue a public transit system, Hill said. At the behest of the tribe, the Community Transportation Association of America contracted with LSC Transportation Consultants Inc. to study the need for it and suggest a plan.
Based on the high unemployment and poverty levels and the rural nature of the Crow Reservation, the report rated the tribe’s transportation needs as significant.
“There is a large need for improved transit services in order to meet the community’s needs,” the report said.
A year ago, Hill worked with Kathleen Burrage, deputy legal counsel for the Crow Tribe, to submit a grant application to the Montana Department of Transportation for start-up funding. The MDT awarded $75,000 to the tribe to get the program going.
With that, the state agency also designated Crow Nation Transit as coordinator for all of Big Horn County, which means buses serve not just tribal members but all of the county. Hill meets monthly with a board of directors that includes one of the Big Horn County commissioners, a representative from Little Big Horn College, one from the Crow Legislature and the tribe’s director of tourism, Burrage said.
“All those people help to give advice about policy and routes and everything,” she said.
The transit system got a big boost from a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration. That money will go toward paying for two drivers, one dispatcher, one part-time mechanic, a transit director, fuel, maintenance and other related costs.
The money award is part of a three-year program, and the tribe can reapply for funding for two more years, Burrage said. Goals in the next two fiscal years include building a bus barn and constructing bus stops.
Through a combination of help from Big Horn County, the MDT and the federal government, the transit system already has two 14-seat mini-buses and a six-seat conversion van. Another 15-seat conversion van will join the fleet in September, and a third 14-seat bus is expected in December.
The buses began running on April 2, and Hill continues to tweak the bus routes as he studies ridership and demand. Three preliminary routes starting in Wyola, Billings and Crow Agency pick up riders in the early morning and run an evening route.
During the day, an on-call service will allow people to call for a ride. One bus and one driver will be available, Hill said.
The one-way fare is $2, and a roundtrip ticket cost $3, with a 30-day pass available for $75. People with disabilities and ages 65 and older ride for free.
Hill is working on a schedule that would take shoppers to Billings every two weeks. He also hopes to create a charter service, where groups could hire a bus and a driver for a trip.
Crow Nation Transit has set up cooperative agreements with the Absalooke Casino, Little Big Horn College and Big Horn County so employees, students and gamblers can ride for free.
The casino draws people from Wyoming, since gambling is illegal there, Hill said.
“As soon as I get all the buses, I’ll set up a route to Sheridan, where we can pick up some passengers and bring them to the casino,” he said.
The top priority for the transit system, Burrage said, is providing access to health care.
“It’s often the people who have the biggest need for health care who have the least access to transportation,” she said.
“And, with Indian Health Service having facilities here in Crow and in Billings, it gets expensive to try to get people to all of these appointments.”
Hill said riders with whom he has spoken are pleased with the bus service. They like riding the bus because it’s comfortable, and, with the high cost of gas, people who own cars are paying less to get to where they want to go if they use the bus.
“Some are saying this is a long time coming,” he said.
Schedules have been posted throughout the reservation and at other points in the county where riders are picked up, Hill said.
For information, or to schedule an on-call trip, call Crow Nation Transit at 406-638-3810.