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A federal grant is helping Lewis and Clark County examine how Helena’s bus system could serve more county residents and meet a wider array of transportation needs.

The county is one of only 17 governmental entities nationwide to receive a grant through the National Transit Planning 4 All Initiative, said Ted Lange, a planner with Current Transportation Solutions of Missoula.

The grant is funded by Strengthening Inclusive Coordinated Transportation Partnerships to Promote Community Living.

Other meetings with stakeholders — as well as individual interviews — will be held to assess transportation needs. Other efforts will also be made to hear from those who most rely on public transportation.

The $19,455 grant will help to give more people a voice in improving the bus service that currently operates one route in Helena and a route into East Helena and provides door-to-door service on demand.

“The goal of the grant is to explore ways to implement better inclusive planning,” Lange said.

Inclusive planning, he explained, would address the transportation needs of several groups, including those who are elderly and perhaps unable to drive, people who have mobility impairments, children with developmental disabilities and people who are blind.

Suggestions for next steps to address the transportation needs of these groups, according to a handout given to those who attended the meeting, included strengthening the role of a transportation advisory committee for coordination and mobility management activities.

The handout also called for forming a local consumer council — nonprofit organizations would take the lead in its operation — and for the creation of a coalition to engage the city and county governments in planning and policy decisions.

Studies done in other communities across the nation are beginning to recognize all of the barriers that these people face in attempting to reach destinations, Lange said.

Solving the issues facing those who rely on public transportation, he continued, is to make sure they have a voice in the planning process.

“We’re looking at both how transit services in the community are usable and meet the needs, and their voices,” Lange said.

“What we have found is a tremendous need in the community,” he added.

The panel for Wednesday’s discussion, held at St. Peter’s Hospital, included representatives for the groups that most rely on public transportation and comes on the heels of a transit plan for the next five years of operation by the Helena Area Transit Service.

That plan, it was noted during the discussion, has been accepted by the Helena City Commission, but not yet adopted, so it remains just a recommendation.

Deborah Swingley, the executive director and CEO of the Montana Council on Developmental Disabilities, said the greatest single issue facing the Helena Area Transit Service is the limited service that it provides.

According to an executive summary of the city bus service, it operates from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Operating the fixed route and the curb-to-curb service — this is available to everyone, without regard to age or the need for special services — costs $1 million of the Transit Service’s roughly $1.5 million annual budget.

The bus service does not operate on weekends, which is among the issues raised during a community survey prepared for its five-year plan that will guide it through 2018.

“A lot of life happens after 6 o’clock. A lot of life happens on weekends,” Swingley said.

The five-year planning process for the bus service also noted a lack of service to the west side of town, poor on-time performance and that the curb-to-curb service is expensive to provide.

While those with disabilities rely on the bus service, so do those who may be down on their luck at the moment and don’t have a vehicle, Swingley said.

Reliance on the bus by people without a vehicle is also noted in the five-year plan for the bus service that found 92 percent of current riders do not own a car or cannot drive.

Montanans are not transit-savvy, she continued, and transportation should be available to those whose only option now is to remain at home, when it isn’t available.

The goal of the meeting, Lange said, is to bring the interest groups together to consider solutions so it’s not just the bus service that is attempting to meet the needs of these groups.

A coalition would allow representatives of groups that require public transportation to seek solutions to common concerns, Swingley added.

Potentially, the creation of a transit district could be one way to fund additional bus service outside of Helena, said Laura Erikson, the county’s grants coordinator. However, the county commission has not yet brought the issue forward for discussion.

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