Mountain Line plans for the future: Speedier routes, Sunday service, electric buses

Mountain Line set new passenger records since adopting Zero Fare service. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In the next few decades, Missoula residents can expect faster bus routes, the addition of Sunday service, and earlier morning and later evening service on weekdays, according to the first draft of Mountain Line’s new strategic plan.

The plan outlines the long-term and short-term development recommendations for the city’s transit network.

Updated every four to six years, the plan is created in response to public wants and needs.

Three alternatives were proposed in a Choices Report released in early 2017. That document referenced ridership and coverage goals, whether to respond to or lead development, and whether to balance weekday, evening and weekend service.

Because of Mountain Line’s fixed budget, the company allowed residents to respond to what they wanted most via surveys.

According to surveys completed by 536 local citizens during 2017, most riders want Mountain Line to respond to the existing demand, maximizing ridership in the short term, allowing for some development into areas that have low ridership potential.

Another survey found that respondents wanted the transit line to prioritize longer hours of service on Friday and Saturday nights, and add Sunday service and weekday nights.

“Everybody would love to have a bus stop in front of their home, that’s the desire of everybody,” Mountain Line general manager Corey Aldridge said at an open house meeting this week. “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough buses to do that. But everybody kind of looks at what is in the best interest for them and what is in the best interest for the community.”

The first strategic plan’s first draft shows both short-term and long-term network developments that the company plans to implement in coming decades.

Features of the short-term plan include adding hourly Sunday service on most routes, longer hours of service on Saturdays and earlier morning and later evening service on weekdays.

The plan also calls for straighter, more direct routes.

Creating a Bolt! Route 15 between the Captain John Mullan neighborhood and downtown while adjusting Route 7 for 15-service to Southgate Mall have also been suggested.

The improvements would cost about $4 million more to operate per year than the existing system, according to the executive summary of the plan.

Five additional electric buses would be purchased, at a cost of $850,000 each, and plans for an expanded depot would be required.

“This is like a road map. These plans aren’t necessarily set in stone. This is basically a guiding document for us,” community outreach coordinator Bill Pfeiffer said Wednesday.

Pfeiffer said that the short-term and long-term network plans follow closely with the last update in 2012, which included the “Focus Inward” model. That plan calls for a higher frequency of buses and longer spans of service within developed service areas.

In the long-term network plan for 2043, the transit company hopes to have more frequent routes that serve dense areas in Missoula, responding to the city’s growth and transportation plans.

The future grid system could transport someone from anywhere to everywhere on the map with a single fast transfer point. The time it takes for a bus to reach a stop is projected to range from every 7 minutes for some routes to every 60 minutes for others.

The long-term plan focuses on more routes with spans of service every 15 or 30 minutes six out of the seven days of the week. Most routes would operate seven days a week, while Bolt! 15-minute routes would run until late at night.

Improving route frequency from 30 minutes to 15 minutes makes public transit more useful to residents. When a bus arrives at stops every 15 minutes, it develops into a schedule-free service.

“It’s 15 minutes less waiting, it’s faster trips, faster transfers and really what we see, and this is really on a national level, is the more convenient transit is, the more people use it,” Pfeiffer said.

This long-term plan also ties into the primary transit network, or an outline of where the most frequent and useful transit is likely to operate in the next 25 years. This allows city planners to locate new development near transit stops. These include hospitals, major employers and schools.

In response to more frequent routes and higher-density areas that will develop in the future, including Missoula’s downtown, Reserve Street and Brooks Street, the city may need to improve walkability by changing road infrastructure to ensure safe transit operation.

“The keys to this are freedom of movement and mobility. Those are the two things that we really want to improve here in Missoula,” Pfeiffer said. “We’ll require about 2.5 times more service than we currently offer.”

Those who attended this week’s open house were excited with possible short-term adjustments to the transit system.

Janet Fay, who is a retired resident of Missoula, said that she has been using the bus for the past four years to replace a car that she never used.

“We have underground parking at the building I live in, so when I totaled my parking fee and my car insurance, it was almost another $1,000 a year just to let the car sit in the garage and not use it,” Fay said.

She’s excited for Route 7 to convert to a 15-minute schedule and has enjoyed using Routes 1 and 2.

“I have found that riding bus 1 and 2 are excellent because it’s just 15 minutes and all of my doctors are on bus lines, so I have no problem with that,” she said.

Recently, Mountain Line received a grant that will fund new electric buses and replace bus signs and bus stops. Six electric buses will be implemented sometime next year, according to Aldridge.

In 2015, increased frequencies on highest-ridership routes and lengthened spans of service on weeknights was implemented along with the three-year Zero Fare program.

Ridership is high relative to peer cities because of these recent changes, Pfeiffer said, and ridership growth is outpacing both service increases and the city’s population growth.

The draft strategic plan will be presented to the Missoula Urban Transportation District Board for approval in mid-July. The public can still make online comments and view the first draft on Mountain Line’s websiteuntil July 13.