One map shows it’s a 660-mile drive by highway from Missoula to Williston, N.D. From Hamilton to Williston? 706 miles.
Not a quick commute.
But more and more western Montanans are making the long, lonely drive from here to there. Then, they’re turning around and coming back again once their shifts end every two to three weeks. As the Bakken oil boom has brought thousands of jobs to eastern Montana and North Dakota, the commute has become necessary for many workers who can’t find employment on this side of the divide.
To ease the drive, two Bitterroot Valley businessmen want to help better connect western Montana to the Bakken oil field.
Bill Lawrence and Dudley Chilcott are promoting their new bus service venture, R’n’R Stagelines, as a safe and cost-effective alternative to the drive-alone commute. They plan to offer rides from Lolo to Williston on chartered buses for $150 one way.
The “luxury motor coaches” R’n’R leased from Tucker Transportation will start in Lolo, then pick up riders along the way, at places like Rocker near Butte and Three Forks outside of Bozeman, until they get to North Dakota. Shuttle services in Williston will then take the riders to their work camps.
On Mondays, the bus will head back west at around 8 a.m.
“So many people want to be here, if they had a job they would be here. This is kind of the best of both worlds,” Chilcott said.
Paul Wilson of Florence’s Tamarack Construction is preparing to build a 320-unit apartment complex just outside of Williston, N.D.
He’s hoping that many of the subcontractors he’s worked beside over the years in western Montana will be willing to sign on to help with the two-year project.
Chilcott sees people like Wilson as the perfect example of why R’n’R will be a successful service.
“We think they can get their tools and trucks (to Williston) then we bring them back through Bozeman, Butte, Missoula and the Bitterroot,” Lawrence said.
Both Chilcott and Lawrence were once over-the-road truck drivers. They know that the long, lonely drives can quickly turn into dangerous ones as the workers rush home to see their families. And some employees can’t get any time off.
“A worker from Stevensville said, ‘I can’t get out at all, could you bring my wife and kids over?’ It’s not our target market but we’re certainly willing to fill the niche,” Chilcott said.
Besides, he added, Williston is already over-filled from the influx of workers. Finding a home for families is an almost impossible task. The service will allow workers to more easily bring their sizeable paychecks back to the area, Chilcott said.
Chilcott and Lawrence have made the drive from the Bitterroot to Williston themselves several times. “License plate hunting” always turns up countless rigs that have come from western counties. Chilcott has seen workers put as many as 40,000 miles on a truck in 10 months. That’s a heavy toll, besides just gas prices, he said.
Dave Morrison’s Missoula-based trucking company is finding all the work it can handle in the Bakken oil fields. He believes there’s a good chance he’ll be adding additional trucks and drivers there in the near future.
The cost of driving from western Montana to North Dakota is a challenge for companies like Morrison’s.
“It’s a big issue,” he said. “When we started working back in North Dakota, we researched salaries and benefits other companies were offering. You have to be competitive so other companies don’t steal away your employees.”
Right now, there’s more work there than there are people.
“If somebody is over there and wanting to go to work and can’t find any, then there is something wrong with them,” he said.
Even with the benefits of the service touted by Lawrence and Chilcott, R’n’R has yet get enough reservations on the stageline to make the trek.
The challenge is getting the word out to workers who are on the job 12 hours a day, seven days a week, Lawrence said.
“The biggest thing is getting the word out, the guys there, they’re working and going back and forth,” he said.
But the pair are confident that once the word has spread about their stageline the service will steadily expand, even to include a route to Dickinson, N.D. That’s another spot where the oil boom is making jobs available to those previously out-of-work in western Montanans.
“We’re here to serve them,” Chilcott said.
Perry Backus of the Ravalli Republic contributed to this story.