Public transit in Montana has rarely been considered a necessity. Buses and passenger trains aren’t often found outside of big cities, and those that exist follow limited routes and run only at certain times of year. However, as quickly growing towns like Whitefish consider a future that is both more accessible and environmentally friendly, sustainable transit has become an important piece of the puzzle.
An initial major improvement would, of course, be increasing the amount of public transit available in the Flathead Valley. Students, the elderly, disabled people, and low-income families all benefit when it becomes possible to move around freely without the use of a car. The Western Transportation Institute is currently assisting the city with a study that will provide recommendations for future transit development. Looking even farther down the road, Whitefish is part of the Solar Energy Innovation Network program, a collaborative research effort administered by the National Renewable Energy Lab that aims to bring low-carbon transit to Montana through the use of solar-powered electric buses. This might seem like a far-off dream, but Missoula is preparing to bring in a fleet of six electric buses this fall that will provide a carbon-free transit option and improve the energy resilience of the city. And electric bus technology is only improving with each passing year, making the emissions-free buses an attractive option for building transit-focused communities.
Besides a lack of accessibility, a car-heavy transit system leads to another problem that greatly affects towns like Whitefish: air pollution. In the spring of 2018, Whitefish Middle School students launched an anti-idling campaign aimed at parents to discourage them from idling in front of schools. Children are more susceptible to air pollution than adults, according to the EPA, meaning that parents waiting for pick-up or drop-off are both wasting gas and releasing toxic fumes directly into crowds of vulnerable students every day.
Other efforts, led by local nonprofit Climate Smart Glacier Country representatives Randy Carspecken and Kate Igoe, have focused on idling by BNSF Railway trains. Almost every day, several hours of switching occur and up to six locomotives sit idling in the middle of Whitefish. Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality has identified locomotive emissions as one of the biggest single sources of nitrogen oxide pollution in the state, Carspecken says, and idle reduction programs have been shown to eliminate many tons of toxic emissions while saving thousands of dollars in fuel costs.
As the city works to improve sustainable transit in Whitefish, locals and visitors can still take advantage of the many options already in place. The Big Mountain Commercial Association supports the SNOW bus, which provides free transportation between downtown and Whitefish Mountain Resort in the winter and summer. Eagle Transit, operated by Flathead County, operates routes within Whitefish and among Whitefish, Kalispell, and Columbia Falls. Now that the weather has warmed, it’s also a great time to start walking or biking to take advantage of Montana’s lowest-cost, lowest-emission, and most enjoyable transportation methods.
Sophia Valenzuela is a sustainability coordinator with the Montana Energy Corps working for the City of Whitefish.