Rural Idaho County Thrives with Free Bus Service

While rural public transportation can be scarce, Bonner County has found a solution

Sydney Chamberlain July 13, 2023

No car, no gas, no license—these circumstances can make rural life inconvenient at best, and isolating at worst. Lack of reliable transportation can limit a family’s income potential and restrict access to vital services, from medical care to the voting booth. In rural areas like Bonner County in northern Idaho, there’s often no good alternative to having a car, unless you’re prepared to trudge through a long winter where the snowpack can be as deep as 20 inches.

Unfortunately, limited transit is something rural residents are all too familiar with. For teens and retirees, being homebound limits personal development and socialization. For workers and vulnerable community members, having no reliable way to get around can prove harmful to health, finances and safety. It’s these realizations that led the Bonner County seat of Sandpoint (population 9,000), alongside the small but growing towns of Kootenai, Dover, and Ponderay (each under 1,500), to band together over a decade ago and come up with a solution that was not only free to ride but free of tax implications for county residents.

After months of planning, the cities founded the Selkirk Pend Oreille Transit (SPOT) system, bringing the first fare-free bus to the area. Anyone 13 and up can ride alone with routes that span the entire county. Many riders are teens and tourists who rely on SPOT buses to get up to the ski resort as winter months drone on, or escape to the limited public swim areas during blistering summer heat. But the bus system’s impact goes far beyond staving off cabin fever.

Northernmost routes connect to more isolated towns like Bonners Ferry, bringing residents down to Sandpoint where they can access vital health services. David Sims, the program’s executive director, says up to 90% of the people on those routes are seniors who may otherwise be homebound.

SPOT began servicing the communities of the northern Idaho Panhandle in 2011 with just one bus. In the first week, the bus had 250 riders, and that number quadrupled within a year. Multiple route expansions followed the program’s successful adoption, and buses now provide 135,000 rides a year.

Connecting sprawling counties

In Sandpoint, SPOT has two routes with buses stopping every hour, connecting riders to the library, parks, hospital, health centers, shopping, city beach and—of course—the ski resort’s parking lot. SPOT routes also connect Sandpoint to Ponderay, Kootenai and Dover, providing vital transport for workers, seniors, tourists and even students.

Across 35 routes, Lake Pend Oreille School District transports about 900 students with buses that cover a cumulative 2,500 miles every day. For the other two-thirds of students who attend the district’s 13 schools, walking and biking is common, but it’s less feasible in the winter months. According to Sims, many students who don’t fall along one of the LPOSD routes use SPOT to get to school.

Workers also rely on SPOT. Bonner General Health, a 25-bed critical access hospital, is the biggest employer in the area, and it’s on both primary routes. The buses also have stops by salad dressing manufacturer Litehouse Foods, mobile app analytics company Kochava, and Kaniksu Community Health, which collectively employ more than 1,000 members of the community.

It’s hard to achieve a good quality of life if you don’t have mobility.”

In addition to serving locals, SPOT has also bolstered tourism with strategic seasonal routes designed around the area’s attractions. The week-long Festival at Sandpoint has been one of the biggest late-summer events for 40 years now, but as it has grown to attract bigger names like George Thorogood and REO Speedwagon, it also brings bigger crowds, making parking a nightmare.

Residents close to the lakefront field where the festival takes place often cone off street corners and driveways to deter visitors from using them, some even pleading through flyers to not occupy spots in front of their home because there’s a handicapped resident living inside. In 2017, SPOT stepped in to help alleviate this issue. With school still being out during the week of the festival, the city designated the high school lot as free parking and SPOT set up a special route with one of their air-conditioned buses to whisk concert-goers directly to the stadium.

Cliff Warren, Board Member and Treasurer of SPOT, said they provided 2,800 rides to festival attendees during the route’s first year. He estimated the service removed about 100 cars per night from the neighborhoods around the stadium, a welcome reprieve for the locals who may enjoy listening to the concerts but were inconvenienced by the crowds. With such success for the festival program, SPOT soon introduced its mountain routes, helping people traverse safely up the 10 miles of icy switchbacks to Schweitzer Mountain Resort. The Resort has long provided its own bus service from the “Red Barn” parking lot at the base, but non-season pass holders had to pay in cash for the service. With SPOT, not only is the service free, but the bigger, newer buses are able to move more people.

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The SPOT Bus takes both locals and tourists to Schweitzer Mountain, free of charge. (Courtesy of SPOT Bus)

Where the money comes from

Teaming up with Schweitzer proved to be a strategic decision for the SPOT system. When the program began in 2018, Warren affirmed that the resort’s reimbursements and donations made them the biggest contributor to SPOT, allowing the transit service to expand operations and upgrade its buses. Securing this new funding source was vital, as SPOT is not supported by local taxes.

Instead of posing a new tax on residents, program leaders promised to raise money using a resort tax charged to people who stay in the area’s hotels. That notion played a major role in the widespread acceptance of the program even in a conservative county where 68% voted Republican in the last election. Through grant applications, SPOT is also able to obtain matching funds from the state to help cover the program.

As of five years ago, the city of Ponderay was contributing $78,000 annually to SPOT and the city of Sandpoint was matching it from resort taxes. The neighboring county, Boundary, which is serviced by buses a few days a week, also makes a contribution. SPOT has not requested any increases from any of these bodies since 2017, but the committee may do so this year as they try to stay ahead of increasing maintenance and labor costs.

Despite having a tight budget, SPOT has always managed to thrive. This year, the program celebrated its one millionth rider and is proud to provide an estimated 2,500 rides every week. The service is a feather in the cap for the county, enabling tourism revenue and offering an invaluable service to the people who call the area home.

More free buses

SPOT is not the only free-to-ride transit system in North Idaho, either. The nearby city of Coeur d’Alene offers Citylink, seeing similar success and community enablement with a similar funding scheme supported by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Kootenai County, Kootenai Health and the Federal Transit Administration. It begs the question: If conservative towns with limited resources can make the case for free transportation, why aren’t we seeing it all over the country?

According to the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), it’s already overdue. “We look at mobility as a basic human right,” says Scott Bogren, executive director of the CTAA. The organization comprises over 1,400 community-based transit providers across the nation. In particular, the group advocates for those with disabilities, which limits the travel of over 25 million citizens and keeps more than 3.6 million entirely homebound.

“Whether it’s accessing health care, work or any other destination, it’s hard to achieve a good quality of life if you don’t have mobility,” Bogren asserts. Government officials agree, which is why countless cities across the nation began piloting “universal basic mobility” programs following the pandemic. The goal is to determine how free access to transit — including bus rides, electric scooters and bike rentals — impacts people’s lives.

Ben Bear, CEO of the bike rental startup Spin, has seen evidence of the increased mobility that comes with the universal basic mobility model and he hopes it spreads. “If you give people no- or low-cost access to efficient and sustainable transportation, we think that’s a big part of them being able to meet their potential in society,” he says.

As of now, cities across the country are pursuing free transit programs with 40 already in full swing, but there’s no turnkey framework to follow. Some who have tried to turn existing transit systems free have also faced backlash for cutting less-popular routes to make the change possible. Just as SPOT has done, program leaders have to approach the problem with ambition, while finding creative funding sources, prioritizing the most vulnerable groups of citizens, and maintaining a tightly managed budget to pull it all off.

Budgets aside, a fare-free system is more than valuable; to many people, it’s vital. “Knowing that I can depend on SPOT to get around safely takes a weight off my shoulders, as a single mom in a rapidly changing town,” says local resident Jessica Scott. “I’ve taken it to job interviews, medical appointments and on days out with my daughter when I had no money in the bank to do anything else. Just about every time I ride, I meet someone who counts on it just as much as me. We all appreciate it, but I am forever grateful.”

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Sydney Chamberlain

Sydney Chamberlain is a freelance writer with over nine years of experience creating content on the topics of corporate policy, ESG, and business strategy. She resides in Sandpoint, Idaho and enjoys contributing to regional publications in her spare time to speak about the area's growth and challenges.

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