Group studying possible regional transportation network

Posted 5/8/09

A volunteer steering committee formed by the Yellowstone Business Partnership, a Bozeman-based organization of businesses in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, will conduct the study.

Jan Brown of Idaho Falls, Idaho, executive director of the …

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Group studying possible regional transportation network


Could a successful network of public transit operate in the Yellowstone region?That question is the focus of a feasibility study beginning this month.The study will try to determine if a business cooperative made up of public and private transportation providers and transportation users can provide a viable transportation network in the 25 counties that surround Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks.

A volunteer steering committee formed by the Yellowstone Business Partnership, a Bozeman-based organization of businesses in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, will conduct the study.

Jan Brown of Idaho Falls, Idaho, executive director of the Partnership, provided information about the study and discussed the concept at meetings in Powell and Cody this week. Nine people attended the Powell meeting, and Brown said more than 20 were present at the Cody meeting. Among those attending in Powell were Leah Briscino of the Wyoming Business Council and Naomi Burns, director of the Powell Valley Chamber of Commerce.

According to Brown, Idaho has been interested in improving transportation in the region for some time. The state has had some success in developing a coordinated system and has allocated more than $500,000 to fund the feasibility study. That money is part of the federal stimulus money provided to the state of Idaho for developing transportation infrastructure. Approximately $200,000 will fund the study, and the remaining money will be used as start-up funding for a pilot project based on the findings of the study.

The Yellowstone Business Partnership hopes to receive additional support from the Wyoming and Montana departments of transportation, Brown said.

The idea for the regional transportation system originated with the partnership as a way to boost the area's while preserving its quality of life.

“These are businesses who care about the area and want to develop it in a responsible, effective way,” Brown said.

Among the organization's concerns is the lack of mobility in the region, where there is little public transportation available, Brown said. She said this inhibits tourism, a major part of the region's economy, particularly in the winter.

Lack of reliable public transportation also causes hardship for those who, for a variety of reasons, don't have access to private transportation or would prefer not to drive for safety or convenience reasons. Pointing to the aging of the area's population, Brown said the problem is likely to intensify.

Brown cited an Idaho study that showed the major factor causing poverty in eastern Idaho is not lack of job skills, but the inability to find transportation to jobs.

Acknowledging that an independent business providing an integrated transportation system not be profitable, the partnership envisions the creation of a cooperative that would bring existing regional providers of transportation together and find ways to close the gaps between the systems.

The key to the system, Brown said, would be a ticketing system that would provide seamless transfers between providers. Computer software is available to make such a system feasible.

Brown said the cooperative would be similar to grower, electric and retail cooperatives currently operating in all three states. Cooperatives such as the Rural Electric Association are a proven nonprofit business model in the United States, she said.

“REA brought electricity to areas that private utilities didn't,” Brown said. “This cooperative could do that for transportation.”

The transportation cooperative would be a “blended cooperative,” Brown said, made up of both providers and users. It would include both private operators, such as shuttle operators and taxi companies, and public operators such as municipal bus systems, buses operated by communities or senior citizens centers and state-funded inter-city services. Those systems would not lose their individual identities, but would coordinate with other providers in the cooperative.

Brown said users of the system would include not only individuals, but businesses, health-care organizations and even government. For example, resorts, outfitters, ski areas and other tourism-oriented businesses might use the system to bring customers to their locations, and industries might utilize it to bring in prospective employees or assist workers commute to work.

As envisioned, Brown said, the cooperative would extend from Billings to Dillon, Mont., south to include eastern Idaho, including Pocatello and Idaho Falls, then east to Wyoming to include Lincoln, Teton, Sublette and Fremont counties as well as counties in the Big Horn Basin. The area's population is approximately 700,000, and 28,000 businesses operate in the area.

During the Powell meeting, Tom Lealos, a member of Save Our Sight, a support group for individuals with limited vision, spoke in support of the idea, as did Pat Miller of the American Legion, who coordinates veterans' transportation services for Disabled American Veterans.

Miller described the difficulties of assisting veterans with travel to Veterans Affairs hospitals, and said a regional transportation system could make those trips much easier for them.

The feasibility study is scheduled to begin with a meeting of the steering committee later this month. A progress meeting is scheduled for mid-July, and the study's findings will be reported to the Idaho Transportation Department in mid-October. A go/no-go decision on incorporating a co-op will be made in November. If the decision is made to proceed, a two-year pilot demonstration will begin.