The most dramatic minutes of Kathy Barr's 23-year tenure at Billings MET Transit occurred a little more than a month before her planned retirement.
Shortly after noon on Nov. 21, MET dispatch center received a call from a driver who said her bus was missing when she returned from a restroom break at the downtown transfer station. MET tracking showed that the bus was traveling toward MetraPark — opposite the direction it was supposed to be going on its assigned route. The stolen bus report was relayed to the City-County 911 Communications Center, which notified Billings police and Yellowstone County deputies.
Barr was on the bus radio with the bus hijacker. "We knew we had to get that bus back," Barr said. She used "my mother's voice" to direct him to pull over, stop the bus and put it in park. That's what the hijacker did.
"It was a miracle," Barr said in a recent interview at her home. A miracle, she noted, that was possible with rapid response from law enforcement. Sheriff's deputies were on the scene to arrest the hijacker as soon as he stopped near MetraPark. The two passengers on board were unhurt. There wasn't any damage to the bus. The hijacking ended five minutes after it began.
Barr said the MET reviewed policies and procedures immediately after the incident. "We made some changes so it can't happen again," she said.
Barr joined the MET in 1997 to work on the new special transportation service required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. She was a dispatcher, then a supervisor for the dial-a-ride service available to elder and disabled individuals who were unable to use the regular MET buses. People use it for dialysis and doctor's appointments. Demand increases in bad weather when folks using wheel chairs can't get through the snow and older adults can't walk on ice to a bus stop. Individuals with low vision also have greater need for public transportation in the winter when daylight hours are shorter. Some of the special transit clients were terminally ill. MET staff bonded with them on the vans and mourned their deaths, Barr said.
"I love it," Barr said of the service that is now called MET-Plus. "It's a needed service in this community."
Even after retiring earlier this month, Barr brims with enthusiasm for the bus service she helped manage. "MET has great employees and demand keeps growing.
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"Routes are constantly changing," Barr said in an interview at her Billings home. "We're always trying to provide better service and get ridership up.
"I loved meeting the clients, knowing we were helping people. I never had a person get angry with me, even though some wanted more service."
Like public transportation all across America, Billings MET depends on subsidies in addition to fare revenue. Each MET ride costs $8 to $10 to provide, according to Rusty Logan, MET Transit director. The full fare charged is $2.
MET's entire annual budget is under $6 million. Nearly half comes through federal programs, Logan said. The rest is from a city 10-mill tax levy approved two decades ago, fare revenue and a share of state gas tax money. A federal grant and years of MET saving for the purchase of several new buses will allow replacement of the aging vehicles this year. With new buses, Logan expects to see a boost in fuel efficiency and a reduction in maintenance costs.
Total annual ridership has been just under 500,000 for the past two years. Who took those rides?
- Students with around 650 student passes sold monthly.
- MET Plus clients who used between 3,500 and 4,000 riders per month.
- Workers, shoppers and residents who don't drive or can't afford to own and operate a vehicle.
- Bicyclists and people who want to save fuel, reduce vehicle emissions or skip the search for a parking spot.
What do you think about public transportation? Billing MET wants to know. Through Jan. 31, the MET has a brief survey online. Logan said the survey is aimed at getting opinions even from people who don't use the MET, but might if it changed to better meet their needs.
The survey includes several either-or questions, asking citizens how the MET should allocate its limited resources. For example: Should it have faster service on the most popular routes, which would mean fewer stops at less popular destinations? Or should it serve more destinations, although that would slow service?
In our growing city of 110,000, public transportation is a necessity. It gets people to school, work, shopping and medical appointments. Whether you are a bus rider or not, please take five minutes to give your opinion on Billings MET at www.mettransit.com/survey no later than Jan. 31.
Gazette opinion editor Pat Bellinghausen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 406-657-1303.
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