BILLINGS — After a nearly four-month safety shutdown, the owners of Billings-based Rimrock Stages Inc. are close to receiving permission from regulators in Washington, D.C., to resume bus service as soon as they buy insurance.
But the family-owned company may not re-enter the scheduled bus business in Montana.
After the federal shutdown of Rimrock on March 22, a Minnesota competitor, Jefferson Lines, began driving the Billings-to-Missoula routes to keep bus service flowing across the country’s northern border pending Rimrock’s possible reinstatement.
Now Jefferson is standing pat.
“When my son called Jefferson on Wednesday, they said, ‘We are not leaving Montana.’ I’d have to butt heads to get those routes back, and we’re not in a position to do that,” said Rimrock president Thorm Forseth.
After four decades of running scheduled routes, Forseth and his wife, Jean, said they plan on selling some of their 14 buses and focusing on running charters instead.
But their son, who is company vice president, isn’t giving up entirely.
“You can’t count us out on scheduled buses and you can’t count us in,” Eric Forseth said.
Jefferson’s marketing director Kevin Pursey said his company has spent several hundred thousand dollars bringing nearly a dozen buses and drivers to Montana.
“It’s hard to ask us with everything we’ve invested out there to just stop,” Pursey said, adding that his company is open to talking about the situation.
As part of a nationwide safety crackdown, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation shut down Rimrock for “imminent hazardous” safety violations.
During the shutdown, the Forseths say they’ve spent $100,000 repairing eight of their buses, which have since passed federal inspection.
In a letter that Rimrock received on July 8, FMCSA said Rimrock could get another operating certificate if it bought liability insurance and met several other minor conditions.
Because Jefferson is only driving two of Rimrock’s three Billings-to-Missoula runs, bus service connections in Montana are “completely broken,” according to Lisa Ballard, a Missoula-based transportation expert with Current Transportation Solutions Inc.
“With the loss of the third run through Helena, a trip from Great Falls to Billings will now require a 7-1/2-hour layover in Butte,” she said.
And unless Rimrock resumes some scheduled routes, half a dozen Montana cities, including Deer Lodge where the Montana State Prison is located, will likely continue to go without bus service.
When passengers heading between Billings and Missoula want to hop on or off a bus, Rimrock would make on-call or unscheduled stops in Laurel, Columbus, Big Timber, Belgrade, Livingston, Three Forks, Whitehall and Deer Lodge.
Department of Corrections director Mike Batista said each year about 1,300 offenders and their families rely heavily on bus service.
“The department spends about $37,000 buying bus tickets for roughly 800 offenders that are getting out and don’t have the money to go anywhere,” Batista said.
Jefferson only stops in Livingston, Bozeman and Butte with no on-call stops.
“What they have done is take the best of the state’s routes and left the rest,” Thorm Forseth said.
Neither company is interested in resuming a Missoula-Kalispell-Whitefish route in Western Montana, he said.
Summer and Christmas are the busiest times at the Billings bus depot. Commissioned agent Kay Stuart, who runs the facility, said she’s just going with the flow of the season and the surprising bus company disruptions.
“Now everything is so busy, and there is so much overbooking from the major cities,” she said. “You just take one craziness at a time and deal with it as best you can.”
Before the shutdown, Thorm Forseth agreed he stretched the limits too far.
“We were trying to do 2 million miles a year on a fleet that should have been twice as large,” he said.
Focusing on charters would be a financial trade-off for Rimrock.
“Driving millions of miles on scheduled routes, sometimes with few passengers, or a few miles with full buses,” he said.
Since federal regulators set up “Operation Quick Strike” earlier this year to crack down on safety problems, the team has shut down two dozen bus companies, eight trucking companies and six commercial drivers.
The peak of Montana’s inter-city bus service was 40 to 50 years ago.
“The heyday of bus service was in the 1960s and 1970s when there were two dozen buses per day serving Montana,” Thorm Forseth said.
When the industry was deregulated 30 years ago, most bus companies dropped the regular bus routes and went into the charter business, he said.
During the past three years, the Forseths invested $600,000 to buy six used buses that met the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Their house was all but paid for two years ago when they borrowed $130,000 and loaned it to their company.
“When we pay it off in 30 years, I’ll be 102 years old,” Thorm Forseth said.
On Wednesday, they were refinancing their home loan to get a lower interest rate.
Eric Forseth said the family will analyze charters as well as resuming the third indirect Billings-to-Missoula route.
“If it’s done right, maybe it could be profitable. There’s also Butte to Great Falls,” he said. “We’re about as close as we can get to operating again. It’s up to other people now.”