By Martin Kidston
When the clock strikes midnight at the end of December, Missoula’s urban transit system could end the year with nearly 1.6 million riders, surpassing last year’s figures and setting a new record.
Much of that growth has come over the past two years, starting in 2015 when Mountain Line launched zero fare service. While the transit system already had its share of dedicated riders, zero fare has helped increase passenger counts by 50 percent.
“It’s a substantial increase,” said Bill Pfeiffer, Mountain Line’s community outreach coordinator. “Zero fare has proven to be an incredible benefit to our community.”
Seated in Mountain Line’s second-floor conference room, Pfeiffer reflected on the latest figures and the transit system’s growth, along with its goals heading into 2017.
Over the past year, Mountain Line has marked a number of achievements, starting in March when it set a record by logging nearly 144,000 passengers. It made improvements to the transit center in August, and celebrated 25 years of Bike Walk Bus Week in Missoula in September.
By October, the agency had partnered with the Lil’ Smokies to release a promotional video, which has since received nearly 50,000 views. Mountain Line ended November by collecting 1,000 pounds of food and more than $500 to support the Missoula Food Bank.
That month, the agency also launched a new “Yield to the bus” campaign, and it embarked on a ridership survey. While the results are still being compiled, Pfeiffer said it has already revealed some surprising facts.
“About 50 percent of our riders began riding since zero fare started,” he said. “But we also have this good, core group of committed riders who have been riding for a long time – about 34 percent. A lot of the people we talk to are riding daily, at least on the weekdays, making it a regular part of their routine.”
Mountain Line has also turned to automated passenger counts to more accurately record ridership. The results have revealed that the agency was underestimating its ridership figures prior to the system change.
Pfeiffer said the increased figures will help the agency compete for grants and discretionary funding.
“Getting a Highway Bill passed was the first time in a number of years we had discretionary funding go back into the budget, so there are grants there we can go after, like bus replacements and those sorts of things,” he said. “The higher our ridership is, it puts us into different boxes for different types of funding, and it makes us more competitive with other agencies when we’re seeking those discretionary funds.”
As the agency looks to compete for grants next year, it’s also planning to launch a new long-range plan. The last plan included five phases, two of which have been achieved, including a new Bolt! route and late evening service.
The third phase of that plan was expected to occur in 2018 with the addition of high-frequency service on Brooks Street. But the goal is tied to a number of other improvements planned for Brooks, including a redesign that has yet to take place.
Pfeiffer said the new plan will reexamine service on Brooks Street.
“Right now, the street design is really prohibitive for our ability to run high-frequency service on Brooks,” he said. “That’s the number one barrier. It’s a great time for us to reopen that plan and ask if Brooks is where we’re still going.”
While the city and area developers are looking to convert Brooks into a transit-oriented corridor, that effort may be years away. Pfeiffer said the agency is often asked to provide more services across town, including Sunday service and new routes.
The new long-range plan will help prioritize the moves.
“It’ll be interesting to see what the public and what riders are interested in compared to what they wanted in 2012,” he said. “We’re providing as much service as we can right now with the budget we have. People want more, and it’s a good problem to have.”
Mountain Line will also look to continue zero fare beyond next year, when the demonstration project is set to expire. The free rides were made possible by 14 community partners who covered Mountain Line’s $460,000 annual fare revenue, or roughly 7 percent of the agency’s budget.
Pfeiffer said Mountain Line is hopeful it can continue zero fare into 2018. The agency will celebrate its 40th anniversary next December and make a push to raise the necessary capital.
“It would be a great birthday present for Mountain Line to continue zero fare, so I think it’s imperative that riders let the partners know how much the community appreciates their contributions,” Pfeiffer said. “This is only possible with their continued support.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org