LOVELL, Wyoming (STPNS) -- The last Powder River Transportation bus to transport passengers through the Big Horn Basin will make its final journey this Sunday, and bus transportation in the area will cease unless another carrier comes along to pick up the route.

That was the word circulating among Big Horn County communities this week with the recent announcement that Powder River is shutting down scheduled passenger and freight service in a four-state region.

The company made the announcement in a recent letter to bus stop locations entitled ?Dear Loyal Associate? from Powder River General Manager Greg Worthen.

The Nov. 26 letter reads:

?We regret to announce that, effective Sunday, December 9, 2007, Powder River Transportation Services will no longer be providing scheduled bus line service or freight service in your area.

?We will be shutting down this service throughout the Montana, South Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming areas. The last date of operation will be Sunday, December 9, 2007.?

The letter goes on to discuss arrangements to dispose of ticket stock and the like, then concludes, ?We will continue to provide our customers with contract and charter services. We wish to thank you for your loyal support during our association.?

Unfortunately for the Big Horn Basin, while Arrow Stage Lines has apparently agreed to pick up most of the Powder River Transportation schedule, Arrow won?t be coming to the western side of the Big Horn Mountains, according to statewide media reports.

In an article printed in Tuesday?s Casper Star-Tribune, Arrow General Manager Jim Maly said that passenger numbers ?simply aren?t high enough? to run routes in the Basin ? although Maly said the line could be reinstated in the future if there is enough demand.

The news that Powder River is pulling out came as a shock to many in Big Horn County, including those manning the bus stops and those who have worked to support the company by obtaining state subsidies for the service.

?I really felt it was a step backward for us,? Greybull Chamber of Commerce Director Sue Anderson said Tuesday. ?I would like to see public transportation available at least part of the time. I hope someone will put something together so we can have transportation through the Big Horn Basin.?

While mass transit may not be a way of life in rural Wyoming, many people in large cities depend on that method of transportation and rely on the bus service to reach Wyoming, Anderson said.

?A lot of loved ones live in the city, and when they come to visit they look at public transportation,? she said, adding that, with the state?s mineral wealth and current prosperity, she would like to see the state step in and provide the service.

JoAnn Moody, who has worked with the Powder River Transportation bus line for many years at Lovell Drug, said the timing of the decision to pull out is unfortunate because the area needs the service. She said ridership has been up recently, perhaps because of the price of gasoline.

?I hope someone will pick up the Big Horn Basin routes,? she said, noting that some people use the bus to travel to Billings for medical appointments. She said other major destinations are Salt Lake City and Texas.

?Here lately we been covering just about everyplace,? she said. ?Texas is our biggest seller in the summer.?

Moody said the Lovell stop had 17 bus customers from Oct. 15 through Nov. 15.

?It?ll hurt the Big Horn Basin, I think,? she said. ?But a lot less people use it on this side of the mountain compared to the other side.?

Anderson said there used to be more passengers when Powder River ran a schedule that picked up passengers in the afternoon going north and south.

Now, she said, the route south from Billings leaves Billings around 6 a.m., then makes its way south via Cody and Powell. The bus arrives in Lovell for a driver change at 9 a.m., departs Lovell at 9:15 and reaches Greybull (Chamber of Commerce office) at 9:50, Basin (Tom?s Café) at 10 a.m. and continues on to Worland, Thermopolis, Riverton and Casper.

Coming north, the bus arrives in Basin at 7:40 a.m., Greybull at 7:50 and Lovell at 8:40, departing at 9:15 and arriving in Billings at 12:30 p.m.

?When we had the late afternoon schedule I felt we had more riders, and it was more convenient for people getting to Billings,? Anderson said. ?As gas prices go up, more people would be interested.?

Anderson said Powder River ran a smaller and probably more fuel-efficient van for a while, first a nine-passenger van, then a 12-passenger model.

?I?m not sure why they went back to the big bus except that sometimes they needed it,? she said.

Moody said sometimes the bus driver will call to see if there is a passenger to be picked up, but more often the drug store personnel call the main office in Gillette to notify them about a pickup.

Transportation Alliance

When Powder River threatened to pull out about six years ago, then Lovell Mayor Glen Olsen and Basin Mayor Phil Juillard organized the Big Horn Basin Transportation Alliance, a joint powers board with members from bus-stop communities in the Basin, to work with Powder River on issues affecting the bus line. The organization also worked with the Wyoming Dept. of Transportation to provide subsidies for the bus line to operate in the Basin.

That subsidy started at around $100,000 per year and by 2005 had grown to $125,000. The subsidy swelled to $156,000 in 2006 and the latest request to WyDOT for 2007 had recently been approved at $195,000, Juillard said: $1,000 for administration, $34,000 for marketing and $160,000 in direct subsidy to the bus line.

?Even with the subsidy, they were not breaking even,? Juillard said. ?Glen and I went to bat for them to help them out. Our ridership has gone up. A lot of people use it.?

The Alliance has met frequently with Power River Transportation officials, he said, obtaining updates on ridership and the cost of operations. Each month, Powder River would make a request for funding, and if it was approved by WyDOT, the Transportation Alliance would write a check to the bus line.

?They put in for so much per month and we pay it after WyDOT reviews it,? Juillard said. ?WyDOT pays the joint powers board and we pay the bus line. There?s only so much money, and after we ran out of money it was done?We felt it was something we needed in our area here.?

Juillard said Powder River officials told him a few days ago that they are working to find a replacement for the Big Horn Basin, although he said Tuesday he was unaware that Arrow had decided not to serve the Basin.

?They?re trying to get people to do this,? he said. ?They?re working with two or three different companies.?

Juillard said whoever would take over the Big Horn Basin routes would be eligible to receive the subsidy for 2007-08.

Powder River Transportation officials did not return telephone calls seeking more information on the decision to discontinue bus service to the Big Horn Basin, but General Manager Worthen told the Star-Tribune that the company was discontinuing its Wyoming routes for several reasons, including the state?s sparse population, a culture that does not embrace public transit, low ridership and a recent federal Surface Transportation Board ruling that will make it more cumbersome for bus companies to align routes ? that is, to allow a passenger to buy one ticket that would apply to multiple carriers ? ending an older rule allowing bus companies to interline tariff rates with each other.