Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Public transit needs grow in rural Montana, where transportation is often costliest household expense

An increasing number of rural Montanans rely on public transportation, Jayme Fraser reports for the Billings Gazette. Not including public transport in the state's more urban locales Billings, Missoula and Great Falls, the number of federally funded public transit systems offering in-town or inter-city rides increased from nine in 2004 to 37 today. Bill Lanier, who uses public transportation to travel 21 miles to work, told Fraser, “I don’t think a lot of people appreciate it until they use it, or until they need it. I had thought it was mostly a convenience, but the more I use the bus the more I see it’s a necessity for people.” (Screenshot of interactive chart: County-by-county costs of transportation in Montana)
While transportation is the nation's second-largest expense in family budgets behind housing, it is the costliest expense for many residents in Montana, which ranks fourth in size and 44th in population. "Families with two working adults who earn the median household income—which ranges from $30,900 to $56,050 depending on region—spend more on transportation than housing costs in all but Missoula, Gallatin, and Lewis and Clark counties, according to an analysis of federal housing, transportation and Census data by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development," Fraser writes.

"After the 2005 federal transportation bill nearly tripled the annual funding available to rural public transit operators in Montana, many systems that first offered rides to seniors and people with disabilities expanded to serve their whole communities, hoping to make education, employment and health care opportunities more affordable," Fraser writes. "Some Montanans ride for convenience, finding fares cheaper than the gas to commute or preferring to let a professional drive in winter weather. For others, public transit is essential. In addition to elderly residents—who make up a growing share of rural populations each year—some riders do not have a driver’s license, a car, the money to buy gas or relatives who can provide rides."

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