- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Helena’s city commissioners want a bus route to serve commuters as well as shoppers, though not all of them share the same priorities.

The city has been working for several months to create two bus routes from the single route that serves Helena. Among goals for these new routes is that they are no longer than 30 minutes and connect to a transfer point.

One route uses the Wal-Mart store as its eastern terminus while the other stops at St. Peter’s Hospital.

Steve Larson, the Helena Area Transit supervisor, said the schedules for the two proposed bus routes each had about two minutes to link up with the East Valley bus service.

While the latest configuration for the two routes has only the red line bus stopping at the Capitol, Commissioner Katherine Haque-Hausrath asked if the blue line service to the Wal-Mart store could be eliminated to allow it to also include a stop at the Capitol.

Requiring those on the blue line to transfer to the red line to reach the Capitol, she said, will mean the loss of “choice riders,” those who use the bus service by choice.

“That Westside route has to get to the Capitol,” she said. “It’s our biggest employer in town.”

Commissioner Dan Ellison asked if she’d ever seen the large number of people who get on and off the bus at the Wal-Mart stop and said he would hate to see that stop eliminated.

“That’s where they shop. That’s what they can afford. That’s what gets them out there,” he said.

Haque-Hausrath then suggested eliminating the blue line’s stop at the transit station as a means of adding time to include stopping at the Capitol.

Larson promised to examine reconfiguring the blue line route to see how a stop at the Capitol could be included and would return with a revised plan for the commission’s consideration.

The bus service can serve Carroll College as well as include a stop in the Great Northern Town Center area, although the selection of this stop will need to be made with an Americans with Disabilities Act consultant that the city plans to hire, Larson said.

State and federal requirements for use of federal money for the bus service require seeking a request for proposals for a company that will audit all of the proposed bus stops to ensure they comply with the law on accessibility.

Notice that the city was seeking requests for proposals was sent to 21 companies, Larson said, including the Montana Independent Living Project.

Another issue facing the initiation of a two-route bus service is a state evaluation of how bus stops will affect traffic.

“Right now, they’re asking for a very substantial amount of work to be submitted on this evaluation,” Larson said.

He said he hopes to have a contractor selected so an audit of proposed bus stops can begin by Sept. 1 and evaluations can be completed before wintry weather arrives.

Under this possible schedule, he also hopes to have cost estimates by November on work needed to ensure the stops meet the federal requirements.

The city could then initiate bus stop modifications in the spring or plan for them as the commission begins to assemble the city’s annual budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2016 he added.

The goal is to have the two bus routes operational by next summer, Larson said.

Helena’s bus service is in the midst of a rebranding. The current white buses will be phased out in favor of indigo blue buses, receive a new logo and a new name: Capital Transit.

A new bus will be received by the bus service by year’s end, Larson said, noting there may be an opportunity in the spring to begin to upgrade the type of buses that the city uses.

Helena’s fleet is composed of what Larson called rural buses and are designed for seven years of service, although each of the city’s buses is replaced every 10 years.

The city could consider including one of these larger buses — Larson called them 12-year buses — when assembling its transit funding request next spring, Larson said.

If the city submitted its application in March, it would be reviewed by the state officials in the fall with a decision anticipated by the end of that year, Larson said. Another six months could be needed to award a bid and perhaps two years to build the bus to specifications.

Each of these larger buses — Larson compared them to a size used by rental car companies at airports — would cost $375,000, and the city’s match in that total cost would be slightly more than $100,000.

The city’s current match on the smaller buses that it operates is about $18,000, he noted.

The state would want the city to order two of the buses at a time, Larson said.

Mayor Jim Smith said he would have reservations about the additional match required of the city and the greater cost for larger buses.

The city’s match for a bus is 13.42 percent, said Phil Hauk, the city’s assistant public works director, and the larger buses would be useful for about twice as long as the current buses and require less maintenance.

Smith said he’s been suggesting that Lewis and Clark County become “the lead agency” for bus service.

While willing to leave the city’s contribution to the bus service at its current level, the city needs some financial help as the bus service expands, the mayor added.

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(c)2015 Independent Record (Helena, Mont.)

Visit the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.) at www.helenair.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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