MISSOULA, Mont. - This summer marks the first time I’ve caught a bus to work since I’ve lived in Missoula.
I’ve used public transportation for pure convenience in metro areas, but catching a bus these days is catching on far beyond congested urban landscapes.
In fact, more Native citizens are getting on board as bus lines develop on reservations.
"We’re packed on the buses," said Wenona Andrew, transit dispatch supervisor for the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho. "We don’t have enough seats. We’re looking at getting more buses."
The tribe operates the Appaloosa Express, a public transit system based in Lapwai, Idaho, on the Nez Perce Reservation. People can ride 8-, 16- and 22-passenger buses, plus one on-demand bus for medical appointments.
It used to be that tribes in non-urban areas had to apply for transit grants through the state. But the U.S. Department of Transportation offers competitive transit grants directly to tribes.
In 2007, the Federal Transit Administration awarded $10 million to 65 tribes, from California to Iowa to Maine.
Four tribes received nearly $1 million in startup money, including the Santee and Ponca tribes in Nebraska, the United Keetoowah in Oklahoma and the Asa’Carsarmiut Tribal Council in Alaska.
Tribes in Washington and Oklahoma have taken the greatest advantage of tribal transit grants, securing $2.2 and $1.5 million, respectively.
The 2008 Federal Transit Administration tribal grant applications are due Aug. 19.
Meanwhile, existing tribal bus lines are proving popular.
The Appaloosa Express is already considering expanding its service since it began in May, Andrew said. Buses now stop at about a dozen places on three major routes, leading to community centers, casinos, grocery stores, housing areas and parks, plus the tribal fish hatchery and forest service.
Tribal citizens can travel around the reservation, including an 85-mile jaunt between Kamiah and Kooskia.
The tribe publishes its bus schedule at www.nezperce.org. Buses operate from 5:30 a.m., ending at 7:12 p.m.
"A lot of people are thankful," Andrew said. "They call in: ‘We’ve needed this for so long.’ They’re just happy with the service. They can’t believe we can offer this service for as cheap as we can."
Passengers can buy a monthly Appaloosa Express pass for $20. An all-day pass costs $2.
In Missoula, monthly bus passes cost $24. Otherwise, a single ride costs 85 cents. City riders are also getting on board in larger numbers. Missoulians chalked up 211,600 bus rides in this year’s second quarter, a 16 percent increase over last year.
"Where am I going to be putting them?" said Steve Earle, general manager for Mountain Line.
With gas prices exceeding $4 gallon - and more people trying to reduce their carbon footprint - Earle said the number of people buying bus tickets isn’t slowing down.
It makes sense to use public transportation, be it the city or a rural reservation.
Of the seven large land-based reservations in Montana, only three tribes offer public transportation. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation have provided a bus line since 2003. The tribe has received state and federal transportation grants.
Riders on the Flathead Reservation are appreciating the service. The CSKT logged 2,500 passengers during the first quarter of 2007. Those numbers more than doubled for the same time period in 2008, increasing to about 6,600, said Corky Sias, the tribes’ transit manager.
People can ride one of three 20-passenger buses across the 1.2 million-acre reservation. Tickets cost $1. Children and elders ride for free. Riders "know this is a really good deal and they don’t have to fork out for gas," Sias said. "We wish more people would ride."
He said many people continue to drive because they think it’s too inconvenient to wait a few minutes for a bus.
OK - I have been guilty of not wanting to wait for a bus.
But a recent visit to trip to North Dakota gave me a new appreciation for public transportation.
I flew home to see relatives on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Several times, I wished a bus was available to get from point A to B on the 922,000-acre reservation.
When I returned to Missoula, I rode the bus for the first time. It took me four years to go to the bus stop, despite consistent urging from my ecologically conscious spouse.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the service.
And the bus stops at the end of my block.
Jodi Rave covers Native issues for Lee Enterprises. Reach her at 1-800-366-7186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.