Mountain Line: $3M levy request will boost service, speed transition to electric buses

The mill levy could raise around $3 million per year in added revenue. The funds would go to expanding bus frequency on heavily-used routes, further developing curb-to-curb service and supporting the conversion of diesel buses to electric. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Mountain Line brought its $3 million mill levy request before the Missoula City Council this week, detailing the benefits the revenue boost would have on public transit across the city.

If approved by voters in November, the levy will have county and city homeowners in the Urban Transportation District see an increase of $54 on a $200,000 home and $81 on a $300,000 home.

Currently, the owner of a $300,000 home pays roughly $142 a year. Voters approved an increase to the Mountain Line mill levy – its main source of funding – in 2013.

The mill levy could raise around $3 million per year in added revenue. The funds would go to expanding bus frequency on heavily-used routes, further developing curb-to-curb service and supporting the conversion of diesel buses to electric.

It also will commence Sunday service from 9 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m., a “much needed missing element for Mountain Line service,” according to Corey Aldridge, Mountain Line general manager.

“A lot of people in our community don’t work a typical 8-to-5 job. So they need service that starts earlier or runs later in the evening,” Aldridge said. “So with this mill levy ask, this will provide those additional hours in the evening and will provide Sunday service where we have a lot of our public riding on Sundays. It will make transit a more viable option for people.”

Mountain Line has seen a 70% increase in ridership with more than 1.5 million riders a year since the initiation of their zero-fare program.

Aldridge said the while the Zero Fare program and increased community support has greatly assisted in earning grants — they secured $4.6 million in state and federal funding in fiscal year 2020 — it also influenced their decision to put forth a mill levy and will further aid their transition to an electric fleet.

“We are able to demonstrate that (community support) through ridership numbers right now, but by showing community investment through the mill levy, that is how it is going to support this conversion rather than purchasing electric vehicles,” Shanti Johnson, Mountain Line communications and outreach specialist, said.

Currently, they have six electric buses in their fleet. They plan to purchase two more next year, and two more the year after. If the levy passes, it could create roughly 25 jobs according to Aldridge.

Johnson said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was “a lot of hand wringing” and indecision initially by Mountain Line’s board of directors. As a result, they polled voters in July asking how they felt about the levy with the current state of things. The results were surprisingly positive, according to Johnson.

“We were all really surprised just by how supportive our poll came back as people valuing Zero Fare transit, especially as we head into an uncertain economic future,” Johnson said. “This is a service that benefits us all, and we’re also in a transformative time for Mountain Line. As you know, our community is growing rapidly, and we want to ensure that as our community grows, we continue to grow and stay relevant to meet the needs of that community.”

While the increases in ridership do not amount to an equal increase in cost, Johnson said there has been a significant increase in operational costs. As of last year, they were roughly 60% underfunded with Zero Fare contributions.

They cover about 40% of what the agency would be collecting if it were seeking the $1 fare per ride collected before the Zero Fare program began.

Still, ridership has been influenced directly by the free fares.

“We surveyed riders a year or two years after the Zero Fare began and 48% ride solely or more often because of Zero Fare,” Johnson said. “So we know that had a huge impact on our current ridership, and have also seen our cost per rider go down.”

Aldridge suggested there’s been a decent amount of satisfaction in their move to an all-electric fleet. It’s a goal Mountain Line plans to meet by 2035, and the mill levy would help.

“I was excited about electric buses coming, but I had no idea how excited the public would be,” Aldridge said. “We have heard overwhelmingly that people love it. We asked about [electric buses] in our polls, and I think it was the one that polled the highest. I haven’t talked to anybody yet, who doesn’t like the fact that we are moving to electric, and I know that we have an air quality issue here in Missoula and anything that we can do to change that and improve that is welcome.”

Council member Jordan Hess described Mountain Line as a significant public benefit and that people should be mindful of the levy on the ballot, which will be near the bottom.

“I think a lot of the objectives of the mill levy are in line with a lot of our community planning goals,” Hess said.