When Mountain Line launched zero fare service three years ago, including late-night buses and a new high-frequency route, it sought to increase its ridership by a lofty 45 percent.
At the time it seemed to be a daunting goal and like all projections, the target was based on estimates. And those estimates turned out to be wrong.
“Today, after three years, we’ve seen an amazing 70 percent increase in bus ridership,” said Andrea Davis, chair of Mountain Line’s Board of Directors. “Mountain Line gave over 1.5 million rides last year alone, and the number keeps growing.”
With partners gathered around at Southgate Mall on Friday, Mountain Line closed the book on its first three years of zero fare, a service that was launched in 2015 on a trial basis.
The program’s success and the agency’s plans for growth have heralded in a new chapter that now has Mountain Line looking to triple its number of community partners to ensure zero fare remains a permanent part of Missoula’s growing mass transit system.
“In honor of Mountain Line’s 40th anniversary and service this December, we’re looking to grow our list of partners from 15 to 40 in 2018,” said Davis. “It’s essential we can continue to growth this coalition to ensure our success continues.”
Offering 1.5 million rides has done more than take thousands of vehicles off the road and cut back on lung-choking carbon emissions. Supporters of the program, which includes most of the city’s largest employers, said it also has created economic opportunities for businesses and workers alike.
Tim Winger, general manager at Southgate Mall, said the system’s two high-frequency routes enable mall employees to get to work quickly. It also helps those who cannot drive a vehicle gain employment.
“One of the biggest benefits to employees of Southgate Mall is that service of getting them here quick, so they don’t have to sit around for an hour waiting for a bus,” Winger said. “It really has helped expand our employment opportunities and with the expansion that we’re undertaking, we have no doubt the benefits will only increase.”
The mall is in the early stages of a multi-phased expansion and redevelopment of its surrounding property. In time, that will include the addition of housing and expanded retail, office and service options, going far in increasing the density of the city’s Midtown district.
That density remains vital to Mountain Line’s own plans for expansion, which includes launching 15-minute service along Brooks Street to downtown. Last week, the agency also announced its plans to purchase two electric buses, which should enter the fleet by 2020.
“For Southgate Mall, Mountain Line provides a vital high-frequency link between the downtown and Midtown neighborhoods that tie in many of Missoula’s prime residential and shopping areas,” said Winger. “Riders benefit with affordable transportation throughout our city core, and in the retail business, we know more money in people’s pockets is good for us.”
Free bus fare is also good for passengers like Erin Steele, the director of development and marketing with United Way of Missoula County. The service gives her options she wouldn’t otherwise have.
“It means I get to be the fun parent, even though I’m not the driving parent, because I’m not trapped at home with an 8-year-old,” said Steele. “We can adventure around Missoula and check out what’s happening. We can do that at any point, not just on payday weekends.”
While Mountain Line works to grow its number of partners and make improvements to the system, including several bus shelters at high-frequency stops, it’s also giving thanks to the 15 community partners who made zero fare a reality and set the agency on its high trajectory.
They range from both local hospitals to the University of Montana, Missoula County Public Schools, the city and county, Missoula Aging Services and the Missoula Downtown Association, among others.
Each of the partners have signed on to keep the program growing, and Mountain Line is seeking other business sponsors to join the effort.
“Mountain Line receives regular letters and calls from other agencies that are envious of the system we’ve created here in Missoula and want to know how they can do the same in their communities,” said Davis. “It says a lot about the type of community we are and one that we’re all happy to call home. But we are absolutely going to need more community partners to keep it going.”