Long road ahead 

Pay-at-the-pump clichés? Been there. Endless reports of ever-soaring gas prices?

David Galt plans his days differently now. Like many Montanans, high fuel prices have him thinking twice before jumping into his Cadillac SRX—the all-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle he bought to help safely transport himself, his wife, and his two large dogs in Montana’s harsh winter—to run once routine errands.

“You used to just think nothing about hopping in the car and running into town to go to the store to get something you forgot. I think my wife and I are more conscious about buzzing into town for this and that,” says Galt. “With work, I’m employed in a business where a lot of my activity and my members are situated throughout eastern Montana. I still drive a lot, but I am certainly combining my trips.”

Galt’s story sounds the same as many Montanans, but his business is a little different: For the last three years, he’s served as executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, based in Helena. Galt’s job is to represent the state’s oil and natural gas producers, pipeline companies, petroleum refineries and service providers. And while he does so vigorously and convincingly—just get him going on the need to expand drilling rights in the state or how his constituents are unfairly pegged as environmentally irresponsible—it doesn’t make Galt immune to a problem effecting everyone in the state.

“Even in my position representing the petroleum industry, I’m cognizant of how much gas costs and the need to conserve,” he says. “Personally, I’m a little more careful planning trips than I was two years ago, just like everyone else.”

Everyone else, and how. Across the state and in all aspects of daily life, rising gas prices are effecting how we live. There are immediate changes evident in obvious places, such as the record number of Missoulians riding Mountain Line or the spike in commuting bicyclists, but analysts still aren’t sure how the current situation will shake out long-term.

“I think people are still deciding what to do,” says Denice Harris, a spokesperson with AAA Montana. “We live in a culture where certain habits are hard to break and, as a culture, we drive a lot. This is not something we can change overnight.”

But the changes are coming. In May, Harris herself delivered the news that 74 percent of Americans said they will alter their driving habits and drive less this summer, and fewer drivers would hit the road over the Memorial Day weekend—the first time since 1988 AAA had reported such a holiday trend. “That is a big deal,” Harris confirmed.

And Travel Montana, the state’s tourism promotion division, tallied record lows at the start of this summer season—no doubt due as much to unseasonably cold weather as high gas prices. Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, for instance, noted nearly a 24 percent drop in May visitors compared to last year. Big Hole Battlefield near Wisdom was off 69 percent from May 2005. The numbers have Travel Montana bracing for a different kind of homegrown tourist season.

“We’re trying to remain cautiously optimistic,” says spokesperson Sarah Lawlor. “We’re hoping more Montanans don’t take the long haul and decide to stay in their own backyard. Another possibility is with the U.S. dollar where it is, we may have more international travelers, especially Canadians, coming to Montana.”

You know there’s a problem when we’re relying on Canadians to help bail out the economy.

“It’s a little scary—the drop-off is big, but it’s still early,” says Lawlor of the early season numbers. “I think we all still believe there’s hope for a good season.”

Both Lawlor and Harris insist the sky isn’t falling or, perhaps more accurately, the automobile wheels will keep turning in Montana. But adjustments are inevitable. Even Galt acknowledges it. In a recent guest editorial in which he focused on the fact that 19 billion barrels of oil and more than 95 trillion cubic feet of natural gas sit untapped under untouchable American soil, Galt also hinted at an inevitable change in the national energy picture.

“I think this country is in a long-term transitory period for transportation fuels,” he explains, noting that alternative sources are bound to join oil as part of the country’s “energy toolbox.”

“I think it’s going to take some time to find out the answers.”

So, what to make of the shifting times, and where to start? The Indy fanned out to examine how western Montanans–from long-distance bicyclists to local bands–are adjusting this

Not-so-traveling bands
Tour costs, smaller crowds keep indie rockers home

Conventional wisdom paints the music industry as a market based almost totally on discretionary income—soaring during economic peaks and brutally suffering in recession. Live music is especially fickle, and those in the business say it’s not doing so hot.

With the economy stagnant and the dollar sliding, the latest rise in gas prices has created a perfect storm: Bands and promoters from the local level on up to the festival stage report fans are traveling less to concerts. Bands, meanwhile, are finding it harder to get to their audiences.

“Even before gas prices rose so dramatically, touring was expensive. But now, unless they have outside funding, its going to become very hard for un-established touring bands to do it,” says Missoula promoter Damon Metzner. “Venues are not in a position to pay for, and take a loss, in order for artists to tour. When bands demand more money to pay for their rising expenses I have two options: Charge higher ticket sales in order to pay, or pass on them.”

Economic realities, compounded by an unusually large North American concert lineup this summer, continue to fuel predictions of record low attendances nationwide. Countless Internet polls show most Americans cutting drive-to shows out of their summer budgets, with some foregoing concerts altogether. Industry reports published by the trade mag Venues Today revealed stymied attendance the first half of the season. Market analysts expect the bottom to fall out later in the summer when more shows will be competing for a static fan base.

Locally, fewer groups are venturing out on the road and many that do are reporting losses. Missoula metal band Lazerwolfs just returned from a short summer tour where their total gross covered about 81 percent of just the cost of gas.

“A booking guy in Fargo loved us and wants to bring us back, and asked what it would take to do so. As if the 14-hour drive isn’t enough of a hurdle, we spent over $200 in gas to get there, so $400 for the round trip if we headed back that way,” explains guitarist Chris La Tray. “That’s quite an investment.”

An early indicator of a summer lull on the national scene occurred at the June 12-15 Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, which, despite bringing in out-of-character, high-profile acts like Metallica and Kanye West, failed to sell out for the first time ever. Bonnaroo promoter Ashley Capps of A.C. Entertainment told the industry publication Billboard that fuel prices hurt the festival both in attendance and in the margins.

“Our sales are a little bit off, but not really what a lot of other people seem to be experiencing,” Capps says in the Billboard interview. “We feel very, very lucky.”

But for indie rock bands, luck has run out. Groups on this rung of the industry ladder travel to their fans, rather than the other way around. In the wide-open spaces of the Rocky Mountain West and the Great Plains, many small traveling bands are finding ritual summer touring cost prohibitive this time around.

Standard small venue guarantees—sums offered indie bands as a base fee—typically wouldn’t cover the cost of gas from driving a van round trip from Missoula to Boise. Without good turnouts, small acts face a more-imposing-than-usual struggle not to operate at a loss. The problem is amplified in Missoula, promoters say, where music fans are notoriously fussy about cover charges.

Metzner, also a drummer for the popular electronic jam band Signal Path, adds the straight percentage door deals he started on wouldn’t pay the bills today. “The way gas prices are now, I don’t know if it would have been possible,” he says.

Necessity has spawned invention among smaller bands in more noticeable ways. Common remedies include equipment sharing, crashing with friends and closing tours close to home where decent guarantees are easier to come by. Portland’s Blind Riot went on a cycling tour, with instrument cases specially fitted for bike trailers.

Idaho experimental group Finn Riggins bought a new fuel-efficient vehicle and saved money on fuel by booking shows in clusters, including a lengthy stint on the eastern seaboard. The band already appeared in Missoula once this year and is due back at the Badlander Sept. 10. Finn Riggins keyboardist Eric Gilbert explains the group was on tour in California this spring when gas prices suddenly bucked.

“We’ve had to adapt to the economic situation. I think it’s definitely hit our margins,” Gilbert says. “Being a west coast band you have to drive a lot further and the routing is usually set in stone, where as in the east you can really go in any direction.”

The group’s approach, suffice it to say, means more work than previous summer tours for not necessarily more payout. Gilbert estimates that between the band’s four tours, Finn Riggins will play roughly 200 shows in 2008. He believes fans are aware of the travails small bands face and are coming out in greater numbers to local shows. The only problem for the musicians themselves is getting there, but Gilbert doesn’t consider that a death for indie rock—merely a culling.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” the musician says. “I feel like the music scene in general is pretty saturated. I think we’ll see more adaptation.”

Exit here!
Roadside attractions show signs of the times

At the Montana Vortex and House of Mystery in Columbia Falls, there’s not much mystery when it comes to this summer’s business strategy. Amid news of rising gas prices, slimmer vacation budgets and fewer out-of-state travelers, the popular roadside attraction—where “the laws of physics are bent, if not broken all together”—has adjusted accordingly.

“We’ve focused everything locally,” says Joe Hauser, proprietor of the Vortex for four years. “That means more focus on local advertising. In fact, this year all of our budget went local. That’s the first time we’ve done that. I think people are definitely going to stay closer to home, so we need to attract more people from Montana now. That’s the only answer.”

The proof is in the parking lot. On a picture-perfect Saturday in early June, 18 cars fill the gravel lot outside the Vortex; all but one has Montana plates. While Hauser says April “was pretty much a bust” due to inclement weather, he’s noticed business pick up recently with almost exclusively in-state visitors. He expects the Vortex to continue to attract nearly 20,000 visitors a season, but acknowledges it will only happen if locals are the one’s stepping through the portal to “see each other shrink and grow.”

“We’ve had full tours all day today,” says Hauser. “So far, I’m optimistic.”

So is Travel Montana. The state bureau reports tourism tax revenues added up to $202 million in 2005, or about $224 per Montanan. While concerned that high gas prices may deter non-resident tourists this summer, Travel Montana points out that locals won’t just opt to stay at home and skip their vacations.

“There’s plenty for Montanans to do in Montana,” says spokesperson Sarah Lawlor. “In fact, we’re lucky in some ways because we have both Glacier and Yellowstone to draw from. National parks provide an affordable alternative for families during down times—they’re seen as an inexpensive vacation compared to, say, Disneyworld. The park numbers actually have been increasing in recent years and are expected to increase again this year.”

It’s the smaller attractions on the way to and from Glacier and Yellowstone that may struggle. Budget-minded travelers may be less likely to indulge with stops along the way, preferring to save money for their final destination.

“We’re concerned about that,” says Lawlor. “There may be effects that we have not seen before, and last year we started to hear about some of the smaller museums or smaller establishments not getting the same numbers.”

So far, that hasn’t been the case at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson. Staff at the so-called “Smithsonian of the West” have, however, noticed significant changes in its visitor demographics.

“There are people in here, but they seem to be coming from closer to home,” says Jane Mole, a part-time volunteer at the museum for more than seven years. “Instead of doing a longer trip, they seem to be doing more in a more compressed area so they’re driving less. In fact, we had one couple in today who were in from California and were on their way down to Yellowstone and then heading back home. I noticed it because they’re the exception. And they’re usually our regular customer.”

Another one rides the bus
Mountain Line and VanPool see record ridership

Faster than you can drink an espresso, the Mountain Line Transit Center in downtown Missoula comes awake at sunrise, morphing from an abandoned concrete station to a swarming hub of commuter activity. From all across Missoula County, commuters are queuing up and climbing aboard in record numbers.

“We have seen an increase in ridership of 12 percent over the last quarter,” says Mountain Line general manager Steve Earle. “That is a pretty substantial bump, and many of our morning commute hour buses are standing room only.”

In fact, one commuter from Bonner who requested anonymity says that after three years of stagnant numbers, his route added at least 20 new riders this summer.

“I used to always find a seat, but eight people had to stand today,” he says at the Transit Center.

The increased business helps Mountain Line, since funding potential increases along with ridership. Seven new buses will be purchased this coming year, and the multiple routes added last year have been well-used, especially a new run to the airport. But Earle says its first-time riders whom the service continues to try to attract. Initiatives like “Free Fridays” and free trolley service to and from the Saturday farmers’ markets are a start. Educating people on the economics of riding the bus is the next step. He points out that a five-mile daily commute means spending more than $90 a month on gas and maintenance, meaning a $24 monthly bus pass pays for itself.

“People in Missoula are very environmentally aware, and riding the bus to work even a couple days a week is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint,” he says.

This isn’t the first time the city’s bus system has seen a massive increase in the number of riders. In 1980—just three years after Mountain Line was formed—ridership skyrocketed 40 percent, due primarily to the fuel shortages at the time.

With current fuel prices surpassing $4 per gallon, commuters living beyond the reach of the Mountain Line are feeling the crunch even more acutely.

“Our vans have been full a long time, ever since I got here,” says Meaghan Dougherty, VanPool coordinator for Missoula Ravalli Transportation Management Associa-tion. “While our van pool has been full throughout the year, our waiting list has increased dramatically.”

Specifically, Dougherty says the list has jumped 20 percent in just the past two weeks alone. That means 125 potential riders are waiting to take advantage of the program.

The 14 vans—each of which holds 13 passengers—shuttle along Highway 93 between Hamilton and Missoula daily. Although the bulk of VanPool riders are University of Montana or government employees, more than 75 local firms employ current riders. That’s a number the VanPool would like to expand further.

“We can’t grow until we get more funding from the state,” Dougherty says. “But we can definitely use more vans.”

Peddling for alternatives
The classic road trip turns to two wheels

Perhaps you envision astronomical gas prices causing Americans to bust out those dusty bikes and hit the road. In a Hollywood version of that hopeful scenario, the camera pans past empty filling stations and car dealerships as a throng of newly liberated petro-slaves marches onto Main Street, leading a variety of bicycles on a recruiting parade. All at once, a thousand free spirits mount and ride out of town—maybe with a musical number—on a mission to spread their new gospel.

Not so much—at least not yet.

The Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), a national nonprofit headquartered in Missoula that promotes bike travel for people of all ages, found an eager audience during the gas price hikes of the 1970s. When 4,000 riders took to the road during the summer of 1976—the ACA was originally called BikeCentennial—there was similar hope that a new era of bike travel would gain traction. But as gas prices dropped, the burgeoning interest in biking went flat.

That’s why experts like Julie Huck, ACA’s director of membership and development, caution about immediately declaring biking’s age of Aquarius. Right now, she thinks there’s simply promise.

“I think this summer’s going to be one of the biggest ever based upon the numbers of people inquiring,” she says, “which is just going up, up, up.”

ACA’s membership, which has averaged 27 percent growth over the past decade, shot up 22 percent in the last eight months. As inquiries about maps, guided trips and membership have seen a similar increase, it’s clear that more Americans are looking into hitting the road on a bike. Map sales, however, have not been on the rise, indicating that actual change may remain someplace around the corner.

“I think many people are just delving into this world for the first time,” says ACA Media Director Winona Sorensen.

Conversations with long-distance riders make it clear that many don’t choose the activity solely for its light carbon footprint. Tom Sullivan, who leads tours with ACA, reports that while participants have plenty to say about the cost of filling up, he isn’t hearing fuel costs stated as a primary motivation for a long ride. Sullivan appears to be an exception, as he’s biking to a triathlon in Washington once he finishes his next tour. While the move will certainly keep him in shape for the competition, he admits the freedom from gasoline made the trip even more attractive.

Whether newbies are lured into the bike travel world by bank-breaking fuel bills or the desire to slow travel to a more human pace, the effects of high gas prices are reflected in the types of trips existing riders are taking.

“We had a call from our members to offer more loop trips,” says Huck. Loops, or bike treks that begin from their own endpoint, save riders the cost—and karmic stain—of including a plane, train or automobile in the itinerary. And as loop rides often originate from home, cycling is well positioned as low-mileage alternatives to the great American road trip—also known as “staycations”—gain popularity.

So how might behavioral changes filter down from distance riders to everyday commuters? Pom Fountain, a Missoulian who travels solely by bike, offered his thoughts on the notion that we may be in the midst of a bike-travel sea change.

“Those of us who already use alternative transportation feel a lot more comfortable because people are moving in our direction,” he said last week near ACA’s headquarters on Pine Street. “They haven’t gotten here yet, but they’re moving this way.”

Living dangerously
Motor sports swerve around the trend

One would think that given the amount of dime drivers are shelling out at the pump, the thought of buying and maintaining a gas-guzzling RV, boat or off-road vehicle would seem like financial suicide.

It seems Montana prefers to live dangerously.

On a recent Thursday afternoon at Bretz RV and Marine in Missoula, older couples roam the lot scoping out motor homes while eager salesmen nip at their heels. A mother leads her two kids through a fully opened and polished in-store display model as floor personnel look on.

“It’s actually surprisingly good,” said owner Mark Bretz of sales, declining to offer specific numbers. He did say that trailers were breaking even compared to previous years, and boats actually selling more than normal. Only motor home sales are down, but not by much.

“It’s only off slightly,” said Bretz.

This means Bretz is bucking the national trend. According to Fleetwood Enterprises, one of the leading RV manufacturers, industry sales are down 31 percent from last year. The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that repossession of recreational boats rose by 40 percent between 2000 and 2006. One of the biggest problems is lenders hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis are no longer financing RV sales; General Electric Co., one of the industry’s biggest lenders, recently announced plans to stop financing retail motor-home purchases.

But Bretz attributes Montanans’ dedication to the outdoors as the reasons he’s avoided slumps that are hitting states like California, Arizona and Florida.

“One of the reasons [people] live here is to have some form of recreation,” Bretz said.

Amede Honeycutt, sales manager for Big Sky Motorsports, said his ATV sales have remained steady, mainly because most of his customers depend on them for utility purposes on ranches and farms.

“By July we’re usually all out,” Honeycutt said, anticipating the same demand this year.

In fact, the only significant change Honeycutt has noticed is an increased interest in motorcycles, a sign of customers looking for better gas mileage.

Overall, he feels that the national reaction to price hikes in fuel is over-dramatized, and though people may gripe and moan, old habits die hard.

“When you really look at what gas prices are doing to people,” he says, “it’s not that big of a deal for us.”
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