Last month LSC Transportation Consultants and Bubar and Hall Consulting held public meetings at the Nueta, Hidatsa, Sahnish College to discuss the Fort Berthold Transit and Ferry Service Plan. During the meetings, lead LSC consultant A.T. Stoddard presented some of the routes and modes of service that are being considered. The team at LSC Transportation Consultants has analyzed community needs, infrastructure, current tribal and non-tribal transit services, and staff and stakeholder input, as well as the feasibility of numerous routes and modes in an effort to develop a draft for a successful Fort Berthold Transit Plan, and will soon be ready to make their proposal. But in order for Fort Berthold Transit to be successful, it has to meet the needs of the community. At this stage, it is crucial that we hear your thoughts. Read on to learn what Fort Berthold Transit system might look like and what services it could offer, and let us know what you think!

The Challenges

The sprawling populations on Fort Berthold pose a challenge common in rural transit. Roundtrip times can be as long as 5 hours between communities. But Fort Berthold presents a unique added challenge: Lake Sakakawea, the third largest manmade lake in the United States, covers over 300,000 acres and effectively divides the Reservation into five isolated segments. Currently, it takes nearly two hours to drive from Twin Buttes to New Town—if you have a car. A bus system would help mobilize community members without access to a vehicle, which in itself brings benefits to rural communities, but wouldn’t make the ride any shorter. Could the source of Fort Berthold’s division become the backbone of its reunion?

Using the water way that divides the segments would cut travel time from Twin Buttes to New Town by more than half, and traditionally water ways were used to connect communities. A ferry service and water taxi system are logical ways to connect the communities on Fort Berthold. But it’s not all smooth sailing. Harsh winters and high winds pose challenges to establishing a water-based transit system on Fort Berthold. The lake can be frozen up to four months each year. An ice road could supplement water transit in the winter, but ice roads are expensive to build and maintain, and are contingent on the lake freezing to a safe level for vehicles to cross. Additionally, the level to which the thickness and strength of the ice varies throughout the winter makes an ice road less reliable and the Tribe more liable.

Reclaiming the waterway is still a good idea, but how do we make the service reliable? Fort Berthold Transit could just be a prime candidate to benefit from using hovercraft, as opposed to a conventional ferry or jet boats.

The Future?

Like a conventional ferry, a hovercraft ferry would be able to transport vehicles and passengers across Lake Sakakawea. Unlike a conventional ferry, however, a hovercraft ferry can operate at higher speeds, requires less fuel, and is ideal for shallow water or icy conditions. That means a hovercraft ferry could potentially operate year-round. Similarly, unless winds rose to over 30 mph, hovercraft water taxis could also operate year-round.

The catch? Hovercraft are more expensive to purchase, operate, and maintain. The village of King Cove in the Aleutians East Borough of Alaska thought a hovercraft ferry would be the solution for their isolated community’s transportation needs, but the rough ocean waves and high winds on top of maintenance and operating costs forced them to shut down the service after a few years. While Fort Berthold doesn’t have the Pacific Ocean to contend with, hovercraft are still a big investment not to be undertaken lightly.

Where Do We Go from Here?

So, where does that leave the future of Fort Berthold Transit? Based on its community and feasibility studies, LSC Transportation Consultants are currently considering the following transit and ferry scenario, using a combination of water and land transit services. Once a plan is proposed, there’s still plenty of work to be done, but the Tribe will have a much clearer map to follow. Take a look and tell us what you think!

The Proposal

Because it will take more time and resources to implement a water taxi and ferry system than a bus service, LSC Transportation Consultants have proposed a three-phase implementation process for the Fort Berthold Transit and Ferry Service Plan. (For clarification on deviated-route and other transit service options, revisit our blog from July 14:

Phase I – Deviated-Route Bus Service

Phase I would implement a deviated-route bus service, either using existing vehicles owned by the Three Affiliated Tribes if feasible, or with new vehicles as required. The following three routes would operate seven days a week:

  1. Twin Buttes to New Town, with stops in Mandaree and Four Bears Village
  2. Mandaree to New Town, with stop in Four Bears Village
  3. White Shield to New Town, with stop in Parshall

Additionally, demand-response service would be offered daily for rides within New Town.

 (Phase I. Deviated-Route Bus Service.)

Phase II – Water Taxi Service

Phase II would implement a water taxi service in addition to the deviated-route bus service, and would include adjustments to the routes to coordinate with the water taxi. Given the distance between Twin Buttes and New Town, a water taxi service would provide the most efficient transit option for travel from Twin Buttes to New Town, as well as Twin Buttes to White Shield. Deviated-route bus service would be maintained from Mandaree to New Town and from White Shield to New Town, with demand-response services added from Twin Buttes to the water taxi.

If hovercraft are used, the route would stay the same through the winter except for when conditions on the water prevented the water taxi from being used. In the event of the water taxi not being operable, or if jet boats are used instead of hovercraft, deviated-route bus service would be resumed between Twin Buttes and New Town until the water was again passable.

 (Phase II. Deviated-Route Bus with Water Taxi. Yellow dot indicates new water taxi dock/ramp.)

Phase III – Ferry Service

The last phase of the Fort Berthold Transit and Ferry Service Plan would be to implement the ferry service in addition to the water taxi service and deviated-route bus service, which again would require some restructuring to connect to the ferry. LSC Transportation Consultants have identified old Highway 8 to be the most feasible ferry crossing, and recommend using a hovercraft ferry in order to offer year-round service. The deviated-route bus service would remain in place and include stops at the ferry terminal. Demand-response bus service could also provide support for some of the water transit.

If a conventional ferry is used instead of a hovercraft ferry, bus routes would again be rerouted through the winter to accommodate travel from Twin Buttes to New Town.

(Phase III. Fixed-Route Bus, Water Taxi, and Ferry Service.)

Fort Berthold Transit won’t be up and running overnight. It takes time, commitment, and support for a public transit system to reach a point where it can sustain itself and the community it serves, but if done right, the benefits will be great. Let us know what you think of these proposed routes now! Leave a comment below, or on our Facebook page, MHA Nation Public Transit Project. Or take our poll!