SHERIDAN — A group of community organizers is working to establish a public bus route in Sheridan. With the help of an outside consulting firm, the Public Transit Initiative of Sheridan County is starting to carve out a plan to implement a subsidized transportation system to serve Sheridan’s general population.
Several independent agencies within the community already provide transportation services to a client base, including the Veterans Affairs hospital, some senior living communities and organizations that help the disabled. These groups, along with the Sheridan College Center for a Vital Community, comprise the majority of the transit initiative.
Even before the establishment of a formalized task force to bring public transit to Sheridan, the Senior Center had spearheaded the concept of increasing mobility for people who can’t or don’t want to drive individual vehicles everywhere. The center’s minibus has expanded its services to the general public, but ridership of those not affiliated with the senior center is low due to public perception that it’s a more privatized service.
A.T. Stoddard of LSC Transportation Consultants said that’s one of the biggest things that will need to change in order to get a public transit system up and running. Stoddard recently completed a year-long study to determine the feasibility of starting a community transportation service.
“The broader issue the community perception that it is the senior center bus, and there’ s a number of things that tie into that,” he said, indicating the senior center’s logo on the side of the vehicle is a big contributor to the public’s perception that the minibus is not for everyone.
“General public riders are in the minority, so it’s kind of self-fulfilling in terms of the image that’s there,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard said the dismal numbers of outsiders taking advantage of what rides are available is likely a marketing problem. He said information he gathered supports the notion many people would prefer to get around more and drive less.
In addition to rebranding existing transit options into a more generic, all-encompassing service, Stoddard encouraged the initiative to move forward by establishing a presence independent of any other community entity. This, he said, would most likely happen via forming either a regional transport authority backed by local government. If the regional authority proves unattainable via the required ballot initiative, a private nonprofit corporation could serve the same function.
“We want to look at changing that image so that it becomes more of a public transit service,” he said, indicating the fastest way to achieve that by having the task of public transit change hands, at least on an administrative level.
From there, Stoddard identified a potential bus route that spans the community in a linear route between Sheridan College and The VA facility with one main diversion up Fifth Street to stop at the hospital. Other stops on the established route are shopping and business areas. One bus running the proposed route would take 90 minutes to complete, and two could cut the wait time down to 45 minutes.
“I know there’s skepticism as to whether fixed-route services will work her or not. I understand that. I can tell you I work in a lot of communities this size, and frequently, I would not be recommending fixed-route service,” Stoddard said, indicating Sheridan is uniquely suited for a regularly running bus schedule because of existing demand coupled with a generally linear geographical layout.
In addition to pre-established stops, Stoddard said any public transit service should be designed to provide customized service when necessary for people unable to walk up to three quarters of a mile to a pick-up location.
“You should at least cover most of the city with that,” he said. “There are few place not covered by that anyway.”
From there, members of the initiative discussed more far-reaching developments of a public transit service, including extending hours of operation of the fixed route. Eventually, the team also hopes to incorporate services to Dayton and Billings.
Stoddard said he will compile the data he gathered in stakeholder interviews and surveys and submite a final report by the end of next month.
The Sheridan County Public Transit Initiative formed when the CVC instigated a community-wide initiative to address poverty-related issues. While a community transit system would address the obstacle finding reliable transportation for struggling families, advocates also say it could reduce traffic congestion, improve quality of life via mobility for non-drivers and make a positive environmental impact.