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.
“With our current facility, we’ve got buses parked outside,” Cline says. “We’ve got not enough parking even for our staff to park. If you’re going to keep growing and progressing, you really need to have a facility that’s going to meet those needs.”
Coming up soon, the USDA and the CTAA will come out and help Prairie Hills Transit help a green facility and come up with some ideas that will maybe help generate some revenue to help support transit. Cline adds, “Everybody can agree that the pot of money is never big enough and it’s not going to increase as quickly as the needs of the community.”
When talking with Cline, it’s interesting that the focus always seems to fall on people or organizations working together. When I talk to her about her success in transit she attributes it to the teamwork of the staff. When we talk about running a transit agency, it turns to the tight community through the various national and state organizations. And when we talk about the system operating in its community, it is set up to work closely with other departments.
Prairie Hills Transit is part of a coordinated system in its community. Cline explains that the governor of South Dakota had an initiative where he went to the secretaries of departments and said they would be a coordinated system. “We have been a coordinated system working with many of the other agencies in our community since 1995.” She adds, “It’s nice to be able to call those agencies, or have them call you, have a social worker call or a nursing home call and say, ‘Can you do this?’ or, ‘Can we help with that?’” She adds, “Everybody learns from each other.
The Transit Community
Helpful to Cline and the agency is being involved in the transit community. As Cline says, it provides a “think pad” of cutting-edge approaches. “Transportation people are some of the most giving people that I have ever met. You don’t have to recreate something; all you need to have is a list of peers that you can call.”
With so many organizations having an abundance of resources, Cline says that there are many things she has learned that have helped the system. “I think of the people who are where I was a few years ago, where I’m the only one in the office, there aren’t other people that can help me do these things, and I think for them it becomes a very difficult and daunting challenge to try and tie-in to those resources because there just isn’t enough time.” She adds, “I would encourage other people to make a simple phone call because there are resources out there that can tell you at the drop of a hat what you need to know and where you need to look.
“I just worked on a Synthesis Panel [TRB] which was wonderful,” Cline says. “I’ve never done anything that much fun and rewarding.” She quickly adds, “I don’t think they expect them to be fun, but it was great. It was a topic that I was really enthused about, good people on the panel, good ideas and Donna Vlasak is a great gal to have as the staff person.
“I think that there are lots and lots of resources out there, there are always opportunities for people to look at those resources.” Cline continues, “They may not always be exactly in line with what they want, what they are doing, but they certainly should get some great ideas that would help.”
Looking at the Bigger Picture
With so much involvement in national organizations, working with people from a variety of agencies, I asked Cline if she has any interest in working in a larger agency. “There are lots of opportunities out there to go into a larger agency; I’ve had job offers. There are some things we need to do here first,” she states. “There is a need and until there isn’t a need, I’ll probably be right where I’m at.”
Her passion about helping people continues to show as she talks more about that need in the communities she serves. “If they are Title 19-eligible, they don’t have the resources to do all the other activities of daily life.
“They don’t have the funding to be able to go to the grocery store. There are programs to help with so many things and there are those people who just fall into the category where there is no additional help to give them independence.”
A program that Prairie Hills Transit started is working to combat that challenge. “If a social worker, congregate housing director, somebody calls and says, ‘We’ve got Smith here who needs some help.’ We will sell Mary one ticket a month for a quarter on the dollar, so basically Mary can get a $40 trip ticket for $10 if she can come up with the $10.”
Most of that additional funding is coming from local cities, though it’s not available in all of the communities at this time. “As with everything, there’s never enough money; we help as many people as we can,” Cline says.
Working as a Team
The resolve and determination it took to start the system could be part of the reason Cline won the CTAA’s 2007 Community Transportation Manager of the Year award. If you ask her why, she repeatedly responds, “My staff.
“It’s not one of those things that anybody does alone,” she maintains. “I’ve got great people that I work with. It’s people that really care about people. They take pride in what they do, they take pride in being able to help people, especially people who need a little bit of extra attention.
“A lot of them [riders] have been given a new sense of independence by what my people are able to do as far as meeting those needs,” Cline emphasizes.
“You have to believe that you’re making a significant difference in people’s lives, and I think we do that every single day.” She adds, “It’s always a challenge. It’s not something where you go to work and wonder what you’re going to do today.
“It’s become a passion and it’s something that we believe in. And again, I’ve got a staff that feels exactly the same way. Teamwork has made a lot of things possible for people in our communities.”