Mountain Line asks riders: Faster routes or standard service more days a week?

Mountain Line is facing two options. One leads to shorter waits and faster bus routes while the other considers service on nights and weekends, seven days a week. (Missoula Current)

In looking at its future, Mountain Line has reached a fork in the road. One leads to shorter waits and faster bus routes while the other considers service on nights and weekends, seven days a week.

It’s asking you, the passenger, to help it decide.

Mountain Line this month launched its first open house aimed at exploring the future as the transit agency begins to update its strategic plan. The guiding document will help lead the system’s growth over the next 30 years as funding becomes available.

“It’s a guiding document that really helps us prioritize how transit grows in Missoula,” said agency outreach coordinator Bill Pfeiffer. “This process is really taking two alternatives to future growth that go in different directions and asking the community which of those they prefer and where they fall on the spectrum.”

Mountain Line has dubbed its first option as the “seven days, seven nights” alternative. Under that scenario, city buses would run later at night and each day of the week, though they would not run on faster schedules.

The second option, dubbed the “shorter wait” alternative, would create several new 15-minute Bolt! routes, effectively reducing the time passengers wait for the bus. However, it would not extend the number of days or hours the buses currently run.

“Those are two directions we can go in and for the most part, the comments we’ve received have focused on either one of those two things, either wanting the convenience of Bolt! routes or wanting to see our service provided for longer periods of time and days.”

Back in 2012, Mountain Line adopted a short-range plan based upon a “Focus Inward” strategy, which called for higher frequencies and longer spans of daily service within developed parts of the service area.

The agency began implementing the first two phases of that “Focus Inward” plan in 2013. Among the changes, it increased frequencies on its highest-ridership routes and extended service on some routes to weeknights up until 10 p.m.

In 2015, Mountain Line also launched zero fare service, or free rides. The combination of improvements have met with success, boosting ridership by more than 100 percent since 2012. Last year alone, the agency provided 1.5 million rides, though it’s now looking at its next phase of growth.

“Mountain Line is as efficient right now as it has ever been,” said Pfeiffer. “We feel zero fare is an essential component to making Missoula affordable for everyone to live in.”

Mountain Line recently announced a continuation of zero fare thanks to 15 community partners who have reinvested in the program. The agency is looking to grow that list of partners to 40 and bring two new electric buses into the fleet in 2019.

Whether it’s faster routes or extended service stands as the next fundamental question. Funding won’t allow both, Pfeiffer said, though middle ground could be sought.

“We’re pursuing a preferred alternative that will likely be in the middle of the two,” Pfeiffer said. “But both of these alternatives are based on a 60-percent increase in funding. We’re definitely concerned about federal funding, but we’re going to keep advocating for transit.”

The next open house is slated for Thursday, Nov. 9 from 5:30-7 p.m. at Home ReSource at 1515 Wyoming Street.