Blacks Hills Stage Line’s government-subsidized service through the Big Horn Basin will end Dec. 31.
The Big Horn Basin Transportation Authority — a board of local government representatives who oversee state subsidy dollars — voted to end the service at its Dec. 5 meeting.
Black Hills Stage Line cited a “lack of ridership” in announcing its discontinuation of the route, which passes through Shoshoni, Thermopolis, Worland, Basin, Greybull and Lovell as it carries passengers to either Denver or Billings; passengers from or going to Cody or Powell rode a shuttle operated by LP Transportation to Lovell to connect with Black Hills’ bus.
This year, 2,624 people were either picked up or dropped off in the Big Horn Basin — including about 800 people who rode the Cody-Powell-Lovell shuttle, said LP Transportation owner Linda Downer of Cody.
Starting next month, traveling by bus between Billings and Denver (and connecting to points beyond) will mean having to go to the other side of the Big Horn Mountains, on a route that goes through Buffalo and Sheridan.
The Big Horn Basin service had been subsidized by federal dollars controlled by the Wyoming Department of Transportation since this service began in 2008. However, that statewide pot of money for the “Intercity Bus Program” dropped from $1.35 million a year ago to $937,000 for 2015.
“We’re caught in a tight place, because we know there’s a need up there, but we just don’t have the funding,” said Talbot Hauffe, transit program coordinator for the transportation department.
The state’s subsidy for the Big Horn Basin service totaled right around $350,000 for the past year and the coming year’s offer — which Black Hills and LP Transpotation now won’t use — was for $337,000, Hauffe said.
With bus ridership and revenue declining, he said the discontinuation made business sense for Black Hills.
State funding for the Basin route ran through April, but Black Hills decided it would just as soon stop at the end of the year than continue through the weaker winter months, Hauffe said.
Downer pitched the bus service’s value to county commissioners and Powell and Cody leaders on Tuesday, encouraging them to find a way to sustain it. She said the riders are people who need affordable bus service.
“They’re the poor; seniors; I’ve got many students from Northwest College,” Downer said. “We’ve got transients and we’ve got ... tourists that don’t drive.”
Out of the 800 people who used the service this year, around 100 were people who “had no way of getting out of here” and were given a hand by police, churches or charities, she said.
The route isn’t a money-maker, so “we do this because we know that the service is needed,” Downer said.
The local officials appeared unlikely to help pay the bill.
Commission Chairman Bucky Hall said that, with falling gas prices, the area’s counties and cities may see a pretty big drop in their tax dollars, which are fairly dependent on oil and gas values.
“So trying to extract monies out of our budgets for a match (on the subsidy) might be pretty difficult,” Hall told Downer.
“Totally agree,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden.
Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown suggested exploring whether the Basin’s 11 local governments could provide the money needed to keep the bus service going for another year.
“I think there’s a legitimate concern; I think it’s important that we have some avenue for folks to get from here to either Casper or Billings,” Brown said.
It was suggested each town and county would need to pay around $9,000 for the year, but it’s not clear that would be enough.
The officials at the meeting indicated they’ll feel out councils, commissions and citizens around the Basin on the subject.
Hauffe told the Tribune the towns and counties could potentially keep the service going by helping cover Black Hills’ shortfall, “but that’s something they would have to do every year.”
He said the department is starting a statewide study of bus service, and it may find a smaller shuttle would be more efficient for the Basin than the large coach run by Black Hills Stage Lines.
“Eventually, I think we will be able to re-establish innercity bus, but at the time being, the money’s not there,” Hauffe said, adding, “I think what it really comes down to is, does the public want to fund this?”
Hall suspects there would be a public backlash if the commission put $9,000 into public transportation. Park County does help subsidize air service into Cody, budgeting $28,800 this year.
Local bus service was lost in the Basin for about six months in 2008, after Powder River Transportation pulled out. Black Hills began providing service that summer.