The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By Bonnie Davidson
The Courier 

The Bus Stops Here

Valley County Marking 40 Years Of Public Transportation And Its Historic Role In It


Bonnie Davidson / The Courier

Valley County Transit: It all began with Glasgow receiving the first federal grant to buy a vehicle to transport the disabled and elderly.

It's been around long enough that some of the locals might take it for granted. But public transit in rural areas is often a struggle in small communities across the nation. Next month will mark 40 years since Valley County Transit began their journey.

While the program has made many changes over the last four decades, recent times haven't seen many large changes. Manager of Valley County Transit and Daniels County Transportation Colleen Pankratz explained that the biggest change that Valley County saw in recent years was when they purchased their current building in July 2003.

They currently have 11 vehicles, nine buses and two vans, and that's quite a step up from the meager beginnings of a 15 passenger van. Pat Saindon was there when Valley County Transit just started getting things rolling. She explained that 40 years ago this month, December of 1974 was when the council on aging started to think about transportation for the elderly. She explained that they had gotten word that the federal government was going to start distributing funding to states to purchase vehicles that would transport the disabled and the elderly.

"We went after that grant and we got it," Saindon said. "It (Glasgow) was the first city in the nation to receive a vehicle."

Saindon said that a lot of the reason the funding came to Glasgow was the coordination of local groups and agencies working together. They were looking at towns with a population of around 5,000 and Glasgow was slightly under that.

"We were very lucky to get that first grant," Saindon said. "Everyone was very cooperative and helpful."

She explained that they searched for a 15 passenger van to help provide transportation and at the time they were looking to help transfer disabled children from Nashua. They found a vehicle there were only three bids for a vehicle in the state, the one that was in Fort Benton was awarded the bid. Saidon said that back then they worked hard to come up with the matching funds for the vehicle, but ended up coming up short when it came time to pick up the vehicle.

She explained that they raised money through bake sales, raffles, private and business donations. She said that a dance was held in Hinsdale to help come up with the funds. It still didn't add up. Luckily the local Catholic church stepped in and loaned the funds for the cause. They worked on paying the loan back as they continued to raise funding for the van.

With the van in possession, they then struggled to find a driver. She said they began to work with an agency, known as the Green Thumb Association, an organization that was run by the farmers union. She explained that they hired low income elderly drivers to do work for city and county governments, as well as non-profits. They paid for a driver.

"They county didn't have to come up with any funding," Saindon said.

She said that eventually they were able to contract with a restaurant in town to help deliver meals to the senior center and home meals. That eventually led to a grant to build their kitchen and another grant for an expansion.

It also opened opportunities for seniors in Hinsdale that came to town once a week for shopping trips. The clinics in town began to work with transit and tried to schedule medical visits on that same day. The Governor's Office was keeping track of the progress in Glasgow and using it as a model for other towns in the state. Hugh Hughes had been serving on that advisory council and was able to keep up on what was going on nationally.

That opened up more doors and Saindon said that they got an additional grant to build the Nashua senior center. The railroad gave the building to the city and the grant helped pay the movers and hook up the utilities.

"The focus on transit was the elderly and the disabled and the cooperation between the organizations," Saindon said.

In 1980, another federal program was introduced to the program that gave funding for operating costs. It allowed Valley County to offer transit services to everyone, not just the disabled and the elderly. The county was one of the first to offer services to the public.

A few years later Saindon moved to Helena to work on the administration through the state programs. Saindon explained that Pankratz, who has worked for the current Valley County Transit system for nearly two decades, had done a good job keeping the program going.

Pankratz said that the challenge is still keeping the matching funds up for transit. They county helps with that along with several contracts for transit through places like Nemont, Prairie Ridge and the the Council on Aging.

They track the numbers of those who board the bus and while ridership is down this year, it's still a long way from the humble beginnings. Pankratz said that they are at more than 70,000 rides in the last year, and are usually close to 75,000. The average is around 6,000 rides in a month, which is up from just a decade ago. Her charts show that the year the county saw floods and record snow in 2011, the average ridership was around 7,300 a month.

"It slows down in the summer," Pankratz said. "Winter really brings the people out."

Now their budget covers operations and maintenance administration. The budget of over $670,000 means that the Valley County Transit still needs to find around $300,000 in matching money each year. Pankratz said the small fares help, but it's a pretty minimal amount that is raised. She said that fares just went up a small amount, but it was mostly to deal with drivers coming up with change and dealing with coins. The fare just simplified the process.

Another recent challenge is that while they have 11 vehicles, they aren't usually all in operating condition. Several vehicles are being worked on and rotated out. Getting drivers to stick around with the nearby Bakken is also an issue. While the county transit offers competitive wages and county benefits, oil price wages are tempting.

"I think lots of elderly people are thankful for them (buses), especially those who can't drive," Pankratz said.

Those who have wheelchairs and walkers are able to access the wheelchair lift and safely make their way onto the vehicles that take them to the pharmacy, doctor visits, the local library and grocery shopping. Other riders from St. Marie are able to access transportation, although Pankratz said they aren't getting a lot of rides from that location yet. They also help pick kids up from school bus pickup points and drop them off to the door, which can be convenient during frigid temps. Drivers can help the elderly and disabled to their door when needed.

"For $1 a ride, it's pretty cheap and we're a door to door service," Pankratz said.

The newest change was software that was added this year to help track and coordinate rides and make reporting much easier. That software has created a challenge as some bugs haven't been worked out of the system yet. Pankratz said that it's an issue they are working to fix.

While funding and gas prices might be a problem in some areas, it hasn't really impacted Valley County Transit. They've been able to maintain what they have. Currently they employ five full time drivers and six part time drivers.

Valley County Transit runs from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week, even on holidays. For a ride, call 406-228-TRIP (8747).


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