BILLINGS — An empty bus stop is a common sight in Billings. COVID-19 ate away the MET Transit rider numbers, from 460,000 total in 2019 to just under 300,000 in 2020. But they weren’t exactly high pre-pandemic.
MET knows it has issues in the community, and it’s trying to fix them in a number of ways, including a recently completed survey and a set of upcoming public meetings.
"What’s it going to take for you to use the bus instead of your car?" asked Rusty Logan, the transit manager for the city of Billings.
That’s the key question for Logan, because he already knows the answer to why most don’t.
"Our system is inconvenient to use and doesn’t run often enough," he said matter-of-factly.
"I go from the west side, all the way to the Heights," said rider Chris Cary, "and it takes an hour and a half to get there."
Cary just started riding the MET. The hour between buses on most routes is his biggest issue. He and many others also want to see expanded nighttime hours.
"Not everybody works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.," Logan said. "And there are lots of activities that are going on in the evening, so if you can choose to use the bus instead of paying for an Uber or taking your own car and trying to find parking, it could really improve your quality of life overall."
Logan says the meetings will establish a plan on what changes can be made, and what trade-offs those will come with, because everything costs money. In an ideal world, MET would do it all, and they may be closer to being able to thanks to a 28 percent increase in federal funding and doing all advertising in house now, instead of hiring it out.
"We actually purchased the bus bench inventory," Logan said, "and we've now got somebody on staff as an advertising/marketing specialist that we share with the airport, so that's how we're going to boost that to match the federal funds."
The city only receives the federal funding if it can raise the same amount of money locally.
Riders are already seeing some payoffs. Most are impressed with the new bus fleet MET rolled out last fall, especially the city’s physically-disabled population, according to MET officials.
"The ramp system is fabulous," said MET driver Tim Mares. "You can drop this front end to almost curb-length, so they're a lot easier for older folks and those with disabilities to get in and out."
But as the city re-opens and those riders have places to be again, it all comes back to one problem.
"More than anything," Cary said, "I wish they’d run a little more often."
The first public meeting is scheduled for May 5 at the Billings Public Library from 5:30-7 p.m.