By Jean Allen
Montana is a vast state – the 4th largest in the nation with 147,000 square miles, and getting from one end to the other can be quite challenging. Now there is a great way to travel throughout the central northern cities in safe, comfortable and clean buses at no charge. With the price of gas these days, this is an amazing accomplishment!
Since 2007, Northern Transit Interlocal (NTI) has been providing free bus rides to northern Montana cities, including Conrad, Cut Bank, Browning, Kalispell, Sweet Grass and Great Falls. When the Greyhound and Rocky Mountain lines were discontinued and no longer able to provide their services, a great idea sprang up to seek grant funding, sponsorships, and advertising to provide this free transportation through a partnership of Toole County Transit, Glacier County Transit, and Pondera County Transit.
In 2016, when David Irvin became the executive director for NTI, there were five buses, two drivers and only three routes. David and his team designed a new logo, began advertising on the buses, developed a mission statement and learned how to utilize Facebook and other social media. The goal was to reach out to a younger crowd; and their hard work has paid off. They now have seven passenger buses with three more ordered. They employ nine drivers, and two more team members staff the office.
NTI drivers must have their commercial driver’s license (CDL) with passenger endorsement. The CDL is for the vehicle only and the passenger endorsement means that they can safely transport passengers. This includes the proper way to handle a multitude of scenarios, such as helping passengers on and off the bus, and passing safety and road skills tests. Since 2007, they have provided over 150,000 rides and set a record in 2022 with 17,464 riders. They operate in all weather conditions throughout the year. There were no weather cancellations last year and there has never been an accident during these sixteen years.
This service allows local people to get to necessary appointments and shop in their own communities. Passengers can easily and conveniently be picked up and dropped off at appropriate destinations, including their own residence. In Great Falls, destinations include the airport, any medical facility and the downtown bus/transit station. The service also allows people to travel between cities, to include the Amtrak station in Shelby. NTI wants to attract people who already have their own transportation, who may save hundreds of dollars in gas costs while enjoying the convenience of not having to find parking.
At the end of each travel day, the buses are thoroughly cleaned; and safety is their first concern. As a matter of fact, NTI has won three prestigious awards. In 2018, they received the Montana Transit of the Year Award, which recognizes growth and technology, including safety, accessibility, financial management and community relations. Not only were they thrilled to receive this award once, but they received it a second time in 2020. In 2022, they received the National Rural Transit Assistance Award, which is awarded for excellence in training, identifying and establishing priority areas for transportation, and technical assistance.
In the future, NTI wants to enlarge their fleet of buses, improve their services, open new routes, encourage passengers to attend health fairs and learn how NTI can benefit passengers as well as the communities they serve.
Irvin says, “We call it The NTI Way – once you ride with us, we know you will see why we are a three-time award winning transportation company. We strive for excellence in everything we do and continue to grow to give you the safest and most reliable transportation you can depend on. If there is anything we can do to assist you or make your riding experience better, please feel free to call or message us anytime!”
Anyone can ride the NTI bus lines, with 60% of the passengers using the service for medical appointments. It is recommended that riders contact reservations by phone or online to be sure there is available space, as well as check on arrival and departure times. Currently, reservations can be made online 24/7 on NTI’s website. There is no cost to ride on the regularly scheduled buses; however, donations are greatly appreciated from those who can contribute.
For further information go to northern.rural-transit.com or call the office at 406-470-0727.