Countywide public transit to Big Mountain almost became a reality this season, but has been stymied by last second snags.
The Big Mountain Commercial Association (BMCA), a local nonprofit trade group, had arranged for bus service to the ski area from Kalispell and Columbia Falls this season, complementing the existing service from Whitefish.
The county’s public transportation arm, Eagle Transit, entered into a cooperative agreement with Glacier National Park and the state to use eight 23-passenger buses during the winter. Those buses were supposed to carry visitors around Glacier National Park last summer, but didn’t arrive on time, and will debut there next year.
In the meantime, mechanical problems with the $300,000, low-emission, bio-diesel rigs might prevent them from being used at all for a while.
According to Charity Watt Levis, a spokesperson for the Montana Department Of Transportation, the eight buses have a low-emission exhaust system, designed to re-filter exhaust when the buses reach 40 miles per hour for more than 40 minutes. But the buses, on their multi-stop routes through the Flathead, or through Glacier for that matter, would have never reached the 40/40 mark, and consequently wouldn’t have worked right.
The Optima Bus Corporation, which manufactured the buses, has scheduled technicians to recalibrate the emission controls later this month, says Watt Levis. But she says that similar work done on buses made by the same company in Waco, Texas, “didn’t go as well as they had hoped.”
And that’s why Cheryl Talley, executive director of Eagle Transit, told the BMCA, which contracts Big Mountain’s public transportation, to look elsewhere for bus service this winter.
“We’ll need time for testing and making sure they operate correctly,” says Talley. “I’m not going to push that. I’ve told Big Mountain that they need to find alternatives.”
In the meantime, Rick Cunningham of the BMCA says the association will decide on a private company to provide transportation between Big Mountain and Whitefish by the end of the week.
“Based on the fact that they weren’t sure even if they could get them running, we’re going to go with a different vendor for at least a year,” says Cunningham. “We just can’t afford to hope they’re running and not have transportation.”
Bus transport from Whitefish to the ski area will remain free. Talley says Eagle Transit had considered a fee of $3 for service from other parts of the valley, but has not reached a final decision.