By Deb Courson Smith, Big Sky Connection

If rural Montana is going to thrive, improvements in transportation have to be part of the picture. Those improvements can include better roads, but a bigger issue is how to help people find a ride when their driving abilities are limited by disabilities, age or lack of cash.

Billy Altom, executive director of the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) says a lack of transportation can kick off a series of problems.

“It’s almost a snowball effect, sometimes, whenever you look at, ‘Okay, if I lose my ride, then the next day I’ve lost my job, I’ve lost my house,’ and then you wind up in dire straits.”

Altom explains a lack of transportation also makes it hard to tend to health needs and interact with family and friends. Solutions include mass transportation and coordination of services on a smaller scale, such as vans.

Altom says some transportation options are available in rural areas, but they’re often limited or only operate to the county line. He points out that collaboration can address such limitations.

“Having those folks that say, ‘Well, I can only go to this county line, will you meet me at this county line?’ So, getting getting transportation services that will coordinate with each other.”

He adds that transportation providers and residents also need to have a voice in the next federal transportation bill, which he hopes will cover a six-year period.

“If you just do a two-year bill and you’re trying to coordinate programs, by the time regulations and stuff come out of the feds we’re two years in, and we haven’t done anything. If we can spread it out into six years, I think we’ll be much better off.”

Only 6 percent of federal transit funding goes to support rural areas, Altom points out, yet 25 percent of Americans live in the countryside.

More information about APRIL is available at april-rural.org/.