'This is bigger than us': Public buses shut down in Great Falls as coronavirus precaution

Karl Puckett Great Falls Tribune Published 5:34 PM EDT Mar 16, 2020

City-run buses in Great Falls are shutting down Tuesday, bringing inexpensive public transportation to an end for at least two weeks for thousands of Great Falls residents. Buses were operating Monday but will but that will end Tuesday.

Operations won’t resume until at least March 27. “This is bigger than us,” said Jim Helgeson, general manager of the Great Falls Transit District, of the coronavirus that’s prompting the temporary shutdown of public transportation in the city. More: Governor says local health departments to decide for now if bars, restaurants close over virus fears

The district transports 35,000 people a month on seven routes across the Electric City. “It’s a real big deal,” said Clay Peterson, 54, of the decision, as he waited for a bus at the downtown transfer center, where riders switch buses. “There’s a lot of people who depend on it.”

'This is bigger than us': Public buses shut down in Great Falls as coronavirus precaution

Peterson uses the bus to get back to the Great Falls Transition Center, which runs a pre-release program for adult male and female offenders, after his job working at a hotel is over for the day. Seven buses are on the road in the mornings and afternoons and 13 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The district also operates vans that transport residents to medical appointments. The para-transit services will continue, Helgeson said. The decision to suspend bus transportation was made after Gov.

Steve Bullock announced Sunday that he was suspending school and visits to nursing home, Helgeson said. The governor’s directives also offered guidance on limiting the spread of coronavirus. “Hopefully this can keep cases low, by everyone doing what they are able to do,” Helgeson said. 

'This is bigger than us': Public buses shut down in Great Falls as coronavirus precaution

Bill Day, who has been driving bus for the transit district for 15 years, said buses are not unlike airplanes.

“We’re all breathing the same air in here,” said Day, seated in the driver’s eat, as he prepared to depart the transfer center.  Riders at the transfer center said Monday they use the buses for trips to the grocery store, medical appointments and job interviews. “It’s going to create the extra expense,” said Terry, a 62-year-old Great Falls woman who works in retail, on arranging alternative transportation.

With schools closed — some students use the buses — and growing concerns about the virus, fewer people are using public transportation, Helgeson said. “Still, if you are dependent on public transportation it’s definitely going to affect you,” he said. Karl Puckett covers the city of Great Falls and Cascade County for the Tribune.

He can be reached at [email protected] or 406-791-1471, or on Twitter at @GFTrib_KPuckett. 

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