Mountain Line ready for new zero fare push

Bus riders gathered at the downtown transfer center in Missoula on Thursday to celebrate Mountain Line’s zero fare service, just as the organization gears up for a new campaign to continue offering free rides. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

With Vivaldi playing from the speakers and the coffee warm and strong, transit riders crowded into the downtown transfer center on Thursday to give thanks for zero fare and the bright blue buses that ferried them through the morning’s subzero temperatures.

Mountain Line closed its books on the 2016 season having recorded a record 1.6 million passengers. Ridership has increased 50 percent since 2015, when Missoula’s transit system launched zero fare service – a figure that exceeds initial expectations.

“We’re benefiting even more people than we used to because of the zero fare program, which is the result of 15 community partners,” said Bill Pfeiffer, Mountain Line’s community outreach coordinator. “What we’re really down here doing is to celebrate with our riders who are enjoying the service, asking them how zero fare has changed their life, and to get that message to our partners to keep this program going.”

Zero fare is now in the final year of a three-year demonstration project, and Mountain Line is mounting a campaign to continue the program into 2018. But that will cost money, and the organization is looking to expand its list of partners to generate the revenue.

In the initial phase, the organization’s community partners provided roughly $465,000 to cover the annual bus fares that were lost when ridership went free. That represented around 7 percent of Mountain Line’s budget.

“We’re going to be visiting with our partners this spring, to check in with them and make sure they know how successful the program has been,” Pfeiffer said. “Our goal, really, is to expand the program in the future and add more partners. We’re trying to get as many different organizations as possible to come on board.”

For those who depend upon public transit to get around, zero fare service has been a life changer. Many of those who attended Thursday’s celebration don’t own a vehicle, and they rely on the bus to get to work, care for parents and run errands.

Paul Michael Quintana writes a message for Mountain Line’s corporate and municipal partners, thanking them for zero fare bus service. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Mountain Line makes it really easy for me to commute around the Missoula area,” said Paul Michael Quintana, who doesn’t have a driver’s license. “Between riding my bike and the bike racks on the bus, it makes it really easy to get anywhere around Missoula in 15 minutes or less. It gets me to school, my job and my home every day.”

When Mountain Line launched zero fare, it set a goal to increase ridership by 45 percent. Backed by its community partners, it has achieved that benchmark two years into the program, making Missoula one of roughly 40 communities in the U.S. that provides zero fare service.

The University of Montana and the city of Missoula provided the bulk of the initial funding to get the program off the ground, contributing $205,000 and $100,000 respectively. The launch of zero fare coincided with other improvements to Mountain Line, funded by a $1.7 million levy approved by voters in November 2014.

“A lot of times, busing and biking are referred to as alternative transportation, but they can be everyday transportation in Missoula because the town is so compact,” said Jim Sayer, executive director of the Adventure Cycling Association. “I hope they keep zero fare going, because they’ve obviously seen some success with a lot of riders.”

Steve Bua, who relies on the bus to visit his mother, said riding his bike isn’t an option when temperatures plummet. He also believes that some city streets, including Brooks and Russell, can be intimidating to cyclists.

He feels safe on the bus and described it as reliable and easy transportation.

“I’d never heard of a free bus before,” said Bua. “I came from the East Coast where it’s $2 every time you get on. If you’re out running errands, you can easily spend $10 to $20. The bus is so reliable, on time and friendly.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com