People ride a HATS bus Tuesday morning

People ride a HATS bus Tuesday morning. HATS will hold an open house at the transit center Wednesday from noon to 5 p.m., where people can give input about current and future bus systems.

Those who manage the Helena Area Transit Service want to know what riders and those who might like to ride the bus think about the bus service in Helena.

“The state requires us to do a transit update every five years and we’re deep into that plan,” said Steve Larson, the bus service’s transit director.

And to learn what people are thinking, there have been focus group meetings, on-board rider surveys and an effort to make people aware that the Helena Area Transit Service (HATS) website contains a survey too.

The survey is found at helenabusplan.com and contains 18 question categories. Among those questions is at what gasoline price would riding the bus be more attractive and what reasons might encourage someone to climb on board.

A final bid to learn what people are want in their bus service will be held Wednesday at an open house from noon to 5 p.m. at the bus service’s transit center, located at 1415 N. Montana Ave.

Schedules and maps of routes will be available for people to view and dis-cuss with Larson and other of those involved in the planning process.

About 250 riders have completed the on-board survey and those who attend the open house to help steer the bus service’s future direction will be able to use computers to view routes and where the bus stops.

The transit service has 11 buses and provides both a fixed route around the city — it takes about an hour to make a loop — as well as curb-to-curb service for those who are disabled or elderly, Larson said.

The transit service has two types of buses and its 23 passenger vehicles are used on the route while its smaller buses — these may handle 14 people — are used for curb-to-curb service riders. These buses are better able to navigate narrower neighborhood streets. All city buses are able to serve people who rely on wheelchairs.

From July through November, about 27,300 people used the bus, according to a tally of riders in 2012. The bus service uses a fiscal year that begins July 1 and ends on June 30 and last year, 106,297 people rode the bus.

In the two years prior to that, a demonstration program funded through the governor’s office boosted the number of riders and in 2010 there were 136,425 riders but that number declined to 114,500 in 2011.

The bus service during those two years brought people from Helena’s west side to the downtown and Capitol, said Larson and Lisa Ballard, a transportation systems engineer and president of Current Transportation Solutions that’s based in Missoula who’s helping the transit service fashion its plan for the coming five years.

Based on what the transit service survey is finding, those who are interested in riding the bus say they want the fixed route to include the west side of Helena.

Adding more routes would shorten the time a passenger spends on the bus, Ballard said. It would also meet demands for those who want to ride the bus to work, use it to go shopping or rely on it as transportation to medical appointments.

A consideration for the transit service is how to encourage people who have a choice between personal transportation and the bus to choose the bus, say Ballard and Larson.

“Millennials expect transit options,” Ballard said of the generation born from 1980 and later.

Larson has had requests for public transportation expansions from students at Carrol College and Helena College and, he said, “they kind of expect those things to be there.”

There’s also support from the preliminary survey results for expanding the current Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. hours of operation for the fixed route and adding a weekend service. Riders can also call the transit office to arrange for a ride from locations in the East Valley.

A significant issue for the transit service is whether to wait to offer a bus route to the city’s west side until there is enough interest or to establish the route in hopes of encouraging people there to use the bus.

People have also indicated that they want better time performance from the bus service which Larson said is difficult as the bus can’t be early when it pulls into a stop.

Meeting the demands for more service and hours will be challenging, Larson noted, as the state and city funding is limited.

However, technology may allow for a way to let people know via smart phones where a bus is on the route, say Ballard and Larson.

Technology may be used to assist those who call in for the curb-to-curb service too.

During the last couple of months, bus schedules have been adjusted to provide more time to clean buses inside and out.

Anyone age 55 and older or who has a physical or mental disability pays 85 cents to ride the bus while children age 6 and younger ride at no charge. The fare to get on and off at other than a bus stop is $1.50 while those who use the bus stops pay $1.

Federal funds funneled through the state Transportation Department ac-count for about 55 percent of the $1.1 million HATS budget, Larson and Ballard said. The remainder of the money comes from the City of Helena’s general fund which is the workhorse for local governments. Fares amount to about 5 percent of what it costs to operate the bus service, but this money goes from the bus service into the city’s general fund.

About 1 in 5 of those who responded to the survey, Ballard said, indicated they would be without transportation if they could not use the bus. Another 34 percent said they would be forced to walk were it not for the bus service.

The results of the survey will eventually be compiled and forwarded to the City Commission for its review and possible action. Changes based on what the survey and comments reveal would be proposed in the fiscal year that begins July 2015, Larson said. The bus service is already preparing its budget for FY 2014.

“Proper planning’s what we’re looking for in how we do things,” he added.

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