“Our 10 buses, each holding 16 to 22 riders, start as early as 4:30 in the morning, heading for 35 stops around the reservation,” said Emma Featherman-Sam, Oglala Sioux Transit coordinator, at the system’s main office and garage on Highway 18, east of Pine Ridge village. “People can also phone our dispatcher to ask a bus to make a special stop.” Since the buses first fired up their engines in early 2009, reservation residents have paid $2 to $5 one way, depending on the distance traveled, to job hunt, go to medical appointments, shop, attend college classes and more, she said. Regular riders buy 10-day or monthly discount passes.
Oglala Sioux Transit solves an important problem in this impoverished area, said Featherman-Sam. “If tribal members have a vehicle, it may be an unreliable gas-guzzler. Regular transportation means they can assure employers that they can always make it to work.” The system also supports the local economy by making it easier for people to spend their money on the reservation, whether they’re going out to dinner or patronizing reservation mom-and-pop stores, she said.
Keeping Oglala Sioux Transit humming requires careful planning on Featherman-Sam’s part. Riders drop $5,000 per month in the fare boxes, but fuel costs alone are $15,000 monthly. Other payables include salaries for 17 employees, including drivers, an office manager, a mechanic and other support personnel. Grants from the Federal Transit Administration and other agencies have made up the difference. The transit system also receives valuable in-kind help from folks who receive various benefits and have been assigned to it as part of their community service.
Oglala Sioux Transit will use its garage to generate revenue, fixing vehicles for local fleets, such as those that serve schools or social-services programs. “They won’t have to go an hour and a half or more to Rapid City for repair,” Featherman-Sam pointed out, noting that her agency’s new $160,000 tow truck can cope with very large vehicles, such as school buses and semi-trailers, something existing towing companies can’t do.
When South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson dropped by on his recent Pine Ridge tour, Oglala Sioux Transit draped him in a star quilt. “He’s a big supporter of tribal transit across the country but has also really been there, fighting for our system,” said Featherman-Sam. Johnson called Oglala Sioux Transit “a model for Indian country, providing all kinds of access that’s critical to economic development.”