Mountain Line to ask voters for tax increase to fund expanded service as city grows

If approved, the mill levy increase would fund an increase in bus frequency, add full weekend service and increase the days and hours of service for seniors and those with disabilities. It would also aid in Mountain Line’s conversion from diesel to electric vehicles. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

The Missoula Urban Transportation District on Friday said it will ask voters this November to approve an increase in mills to support the expansion of a number of Mountain Line services.

The agency said the expansion would increase bus frequency, add full weekend service and increase the days and hours of operation for seniors and those with disabilities. It would also aid in the agency’s conversion from diesel to electric vehicles.

To get there, Mountain Line will ask voters to approve a mill levy increase of 20 mills, which would raise around $3 million per year. The owner of a $200,000 home would see an annual tax increase of $54. The mill increase would likely be passed on to many renters as well.

Missoula County is also seeking to boost spending by $1.1 million in its FY21 budget, which would increase taxes on a $350,000 home by $17.34 a year.

As Missoula grows, it is important that everyone in the community has access to affordable, reliable transportation,” said Jesse Dodson, board chair of the transit district. “Investing in public transit benefits us all, even in these difficult times.”

That growth includes a number of large subdivisions, which are planned west of Reserve Street and have or will request annexation into the city. They will be required to petition into the transit district as part of the annexation process.

Plans tied to a federal BUILD grant received last year to fund transportation improvements west of Reserve call for around 6,000 new housing units in the Mullan area. Extending public transit to such areas is seen as one tool to reduce traffic congestion.

Members of the Missoula City Council this week said they wanted Mountain Line to detail its expansion plans.

It’s important to recognize the presence of the transit district generally confers a benefit on people who live in the region,” City Council member Jordan Hess said this week during an annexation hearing. “It’s a community service, and by being in that district and contributing to that district, it’s conferring a benefit on our community. I know with the BUILD grant, Mountain Line does have some plans to further expand into this area at some point in the future.”

In 2017, Mountain Line completed a planning process that included public input to inform a strategic plan released in 2018. The results suggested a community desire for expanded bus service and other support to ensure public transportation moves into the future and matches the needs of a growing city.

The main source of operational funding for Mountain Line has been its perpetual mill levy. Since the creation of the transit district in 1976, the agency has approached voters just once to increase its operating levy.

That occurred in 2013 and with the support of voters, Mountain Line was able to add an additional high-frequency route, along with evening service and improved ridership for seniors and people with disabilities.

This is a transformative moment for Mountain Line,” said Corey Aldridge, Mountain Line general manager. “We heard the desire for weekend and late-evening service and put together a plan to meet those demands. Now, with the voters’ permission, and support for this investment, we’re ready to make that plan a reality.”

With the backing of community partners, Mountain Line launched free ridership in 2015 and waived the old $1 fee. Since then, the agency said ridership has increased nearly 70% with more than 1.5 million riders a year. The figures have been steady over the past four years.

Agency officials said the tax increase would enhance the Zero Fare program by funding increased services.

Since the debut of our Zero-Fare program in 2015, we have seen ridership jump almost seventy percent, to 1.5 million rides annually,” said Dodson. “This mill levy increase will fund expanded services to meet the needs of our growing community and continue to ensure our community is accessible to everyone.”

The mill levy increase wouldn’t be the only new tax to appear on bills due from property owners next year. Missoula County is also proposing a $1.1 million spending increase in its FY21 budget. The new revenue would result in an annual tax increase of $17.34 on a home valued at $350,000.

County commissioners declined to place a proposed bond for improvements to the fairgrounds on this year’s ballot but may consider a mill increase for the fairgrounds to fund additional work.

The Department of Parks and Recreation at the city is also seeking to implement a conservation and stewardship mill levy, which the City Council approved last year.