The 25-mile commute through the rolling farm fields of Benewah County is effortless for 21-year-old Veronica Matt, who recently got a job as a housekeeper at the Coeur d’Alene Casino and Resort.
And despite the cost of gasoline, the trip doesn’t cost Matt a dime.
That’s because she takes the bus.
Matt lives in Tensed, Idaho, with her 4-year-old daughter and has no car. Without the bus, she said, “I’d have to pay someone gas money to take me up here.”
Matt is one of a growing number of riders on CityLink, a new public transit system that currently serves the U.S. Highway 95 corridor through Benewah County.
Beginning Nov. 1, CityLink will launch its urban routes in Kootenai County, which will connect to the rural route Matt rides, making it possible for someone in DeSmet, Idaho, to take the bus to the hospital or North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, the Silver Lake Mall in Hayden, or Wal-Mart in Post Falls.
The buses, each decorated with a mural of a trout fighting at the end of a fly-fisherman’s line, will follow fixed routes on a schedule that varies from every hour and 20 minutes to every 3 hours, from 6:20 a.m. until after 3 a.m.
It’s the first regular, 7-day-a-week bus service in North Idaho since North Idaho Community Express ceased its routes in 1995. The NICE bus still operates weekdays between Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene.
Eventually, transit planners hope to add St. Maries to the southern rural route and Liberty Lake and Spokane to the northern route.
“It’s such a great opportunity to give people mobility they didn’t have before and gives them a choice, where before they didn’t have a choice,” said Glenn Miles, director of the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization (KMPO), which partnered with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to provide the bus system.
When Dixie Reid, a Coeur d’Alene council member and chairwoman of KMPO, attended the rollout of CityLink in Benewah County, she met an elderly woman from Tensed.
The woman asked Reid where the bus would go.
“I said, ‘It will go all the way to Wal-Mart in Post Falls,’ and the lady got tears in her eyes,” Reid recalled. “She said she depends on a friend who takes her once a month to Moscow to grocery shop.”
After the 2000 census, the federal government designated Kootenai County as an urbanized area and mandated that the communities develop a public transit system, Reid said.
“It just scared me to death, because I didn’t think we could do it,” she said. “I’m still just amazed that we pulled it off.”
What made it possible was the involvement of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, she said. The tribe offered to use its money as matching funds for the federal grant needed to operate the urban bus service. Those involved said it’s the first time tribal and non-tribal governments have cooperated to create a public transit system for everyone.
“It was just a can-do attitude all the way,” Reid said. “This partnership will lead to other partnerships in the future.”
The total cost for operating the urban routes is $631,700 per year – half from a federal grant administered by Kootenai County and half from tribal dollars, Miles said.
The cities and organizations that are part of KMPO pay into a fund for the Kootenai Area Transportation System, or KATS, which now provides dial-a-ride service in Kootenai County. Once CityLink is operational, the intent is to tie KATS into CityLink with more routes.
For the rural route in Benewah County, the annual cost is $293,876, of which $131,106 is tribal money and the rest is federal transportation grant dollars, according to Bob Bostwick, spokesman for the Coeur d’Alene Casino.
The tribe was already offering free shuttles to the Coeur d’Alene Casino and limited bus service between the southern and northern ends of the county. The new CityLink routes replace those routes.
While the casino will serve as the hub between the north and south routes, Reid said the bus service benefits a lot more than the tribe’s casino.
“The casino is a stop, just like the Regal Cinemas at Riverstone is a stop. It does get people to the casino, but they were doing that anyway,” she said.
The tribe has 1,400 employees – many of whom now might be able to take the bus instead of driving their own cars to work. And because all the buses are equipped with bike racks, people who want to ride the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes also can take the bus to the trailhead, Bostwick said.
“I’ve heard elders say, if you have something, you must share it. If you don’t share what you have, you have nothing,” Bostwick said.
The federal grants are renewable for three years, after which KMPO and the tribe will decide whether interest is high enough to continue the service or expand it.
Public transit appears to be growing in popularity around the region. The Spokane Transit Authority has seen a 10 percent increase in its youth ridership, a 10 percent increase in Eastern Washington University students, who ride free of charge, and a 6.5 percent increase in its elderly and handicapped ridership in the last year, said Steve Blaska, STA’s operations director.
Overall, STA’s ridership has increased 2.5 percent, he said, and it could increase more with the addition of new routes serving the Spokane Valley Mall and other areas.
CityLink’s participation is still growing in Benewah County.
“The first day, I might have had 20 or 30 riders,” said driver Susie Bothman. “One day last week, I had 60.”
Debra Hanks, director of the Benewah Medical Center, said she always sees people waiting for the bus at the Wellness Center, which houses the community pool, gymnasium and weights. “We’re excited to have it,” Hanks said. “Not only will it help our patients and the Wellness Center, it also helps our employees – especially those who live in outlying areas – with the price of gas.”
Many young people use the bus to get to and from the Wellness Center before and after school.
“There’s a group of kids who catch the bus here every morning to work out,” said Leslie Arnoux, who works the front desk at the center. “They go to school from here.”
Bostwick said the bus system “brings people together.” That could apply to the government leaders who cooperated to launch the two-county service, but also to the people who ride the bus.
On one recent mid-afternoon trip, several people got on and off between the Wellness Center and DeSmet. Carol Albert got on at the DeSmet post office to ride to Plummer to visit a sick friend.
“I wouldn’t be doing this at all unless I could catch a ride with someone,” she said. “I’d be stuck in the house.”
As the bus started to pull out of DeSmet, Bill Whistocken came jogging down the street. He had been waiting at the wrong stop. Bothman stopped and waited for him.
“Hi Bill,” the others said as he climbed on. After getting settled next to one of the large windows, Whistocken said he was going to Plummer to check his mail and visit friends.
Before, he used to hitchhike to get to Plummer. “This is a lot more convenient,” he said.