Sustainable rural transit

Gas is creeping back up above $3.00/gallon, and this is bad news for everyone. But nobody feels the pain as much as people living in lightly-populated rural areas. When businesses shut down, it means that people must drive for dozens of miles to find basic goods like groceries, or even to work at minimum-wage jobs. Cuts in urban bus routes make it difficult to get around the city, but cuts in rural transit can make reliable movement impossible.

Gas prices are not as bad as they were last year, so this is no longer in the news. But the overall level of economic trouble makes the rural transportation crisis more dire. We are not far from seeing full-blown collapse of rural economies, which has already begun in some areas. City folks may be tempted to write this off as a consequence of country folks’ decision to live in the middle of nowhere, but this issue will affect us all. Even setting aside our reliance on the agricultural and resource-based economies, rural collapse will drive people into already-struggling cities. 

Communities off the Interstate highway system have seen a relentless drop in the availability of long-haul train and bus options, and increasingly must rely on small regional carriers. These work reasonably well for getting to the nearest major towns, but moving around beyond that is difficult. Schedules may not be available online, and do not always coordinate. Changing buses may require layovers lasting hours or overnight. There are exceptions like the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, but most of the country is totally reliant on automobiles.

Fortunately for some rural residents in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the Yellowstone Business Alliance is exploring a transit cooperative to link at least 27 counties in the three states. They are currently conducting a feasibility study, which should be complete at the end of the year, after which a pilot will be launched.

Their highest priorities are closing service gaps and coordinating transfers, but the co-op is also envisioned as a broker and ticketing agent throughout the region. Marketing and purchase of equipment and services could also be addressed. Finally, this organization could provide a boost to efforts aimed at resuming two Amtrak routes through the area; by more effectively delivering people to potential train stops, they will create a market for train travel.

Setting up a business in three states is complicated enough, but the three states in question are each served by a different provider of cooperative development assistance. The Northwest Cooperative Development Center, the Montana Cooperative Development Center, and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union CDC have recognized the importance of this project demands working across boundaries. They have leveraged their relationships, built through the CooperationWorks! network, and launched a joint project. This bodes well for the prospects for interstate development of healthcare cooperatives, should that become the chosen model for expansion of coverage.

Transit alone will not solve the economic troubles facing rural America. But if this cooperative succeeds, the Greater Yellowstone region will at least maintain and improve its residents abilities to move around the region. Without that, there’s little hope of a sustainable economy for any of us.

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