Who would have thought a cover story interview in May would have to be postponed due to a blizzard? In early May several cities had declared a snow emergency when South Dakota was hit with snow up to 3 feet and winds gusting at 50 miles per hour.
Covering a 12,500-square-mile area, most of the area that West River Transit Authority Inc., d/b/a Prairie Hills Transit provides service in was shut down in one way or another. Barbara K. Cline, executive director, says they were fortunately able to maintain telephone communication. She says, “One of our dispatchers was able to get in and he took calls most of the day; let people know that were calling in that we wouldn’t have service, when we expected to reschedule the critical medical things like dialysis.” She adds, “We were grateful that he was able to get in and do that.”
Falling into Transit
Cline says of her beginnings in transit, “I rode a school bus for 13 years and when I got off that school bus I said I am never going to have another thing to do with buses.
“I’ve had to eat my words since then,” she laughs. “This really wasn’t one of those businesses that I planned to get into, but it’s exciting.”
She tells of how it all started. “I was in an accounting department for the healthcare community and decided that I would apply for a job as a nutrition manager. At the time that I took the job, volunteers were kind of scarce so I ended up doing a lot of delivery routes for home-delivered meals.”
Cline would talk with the people she was delivering meals to and soon realized that the reason they weren’t coming to the meals program was because they didn’t have any way to get there. She would often ask if they could come in, would they come in? “The recurring, ‘Yeah, I would like to,’ was one of the things that made me go to my boss and say, ‘I think I can get a grant for some operating money to provide transportation.’” At the time, about 1990, there was a 1979 green van sitting in the back parking lot for a couple of years and that was the start of the transportation service.
“The vehicle, at the time it did not have a lift, but we started senior transportation, operating four hours a day, five days a week in the old green van that is now retired,” Cline states. Laughing, she adds, “It served its purpose at the time.”
Cline continues, “Spearfish Senior Transportation turned out to be a great big hit in the area and it was sort of the process of the communities calling and saying, ‘We know Spearfish has a van and takes people around, is there a possibility that we can get a van or a bus and do the same thing?’” The service area expanded and the board decided it needed to come up with a new name that suited the coverage area. “Spearfish Senior Transportation went away as we started adding communities. That’s why we came up with “Prairie” and “Hills” and “Transit,”” she says.
Blizzards are not the only challenges the agency faces obviously. Cline has her hands full with a variety of obstacles to keep her and her team focused.
Fuel prices hit especially hard when you are servicing an area so large. Many of the medical appointments Prairie Hills Transit provides rides for, the ridership is on a limited income. “For this year we are probably going to be OK,” Cline confirms. “We may have to meld some of our demand response into more of a deviated fixed-route where we tell people, ‘OK, we’re going to go to the store or this community twice a week instead of every day.’” She stresses, “We’ve got a backup plan in place; we’re just trying to maintain as much flexibility for people as we can. And so far we’ve managed that.”
Plans for the future include a new bus facility with regional maintenance. The new facility would have a bigger setup for the maintenance crew to do some work for other nonprofits.