Mountain Line gears up for expanded service after voter approved tax increase

Funding from the tax increase will help expand Mountain Line’s free ridership and conversation of diesel buses, pictured in this file photo, to electric. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Mountain Line had 10 of its staff out waiting for COVID-19 test results last week, more than a quarter of its ranks.

And while Mountain Line hasn’t had any positive work-related cases, the agency has had to adapt to staff shortages due to contract tracing and quarantining. This meant unprecedented daily suspensions or adjustments of bus routes, as well as temporary cancellations of shuttle service.

According to Shanti Johnson, Mountain Line Communication Director, even with 14 new hires at the beginning of the year and sanitation measures used on their buses, the pandemic has hit them harder than expected.

“The reality of the pandemic is, we cannot plan for it as much as we think we can,” Johnson said. “As much as we think our plans are comprehensive, there seems to always be something that comes up that we’ve been experiencing impact harder than we planned for. I think it’s similar to almost everybody in our community.”

Even with a difficult year for Mountain Line, the $3.1 million levy passed on Tuesday with 60% of voters offers optimism. Property owners will see taxes increase up to $81 a year for a $300,000 home.

“We don’t know when COVID-19 is going to stop impacting us, but we do know that it’s temporary, and this mill levy is looking at a much bigger vision for the future,” Johnson said.

That bigger vision expands service, offering greater frequency and putting Mountain Line “in a much better place” to accomplish its goal of an all-electric fleet by 2035, according to Corey Aldridge, Mountain Line General Manager.

“Through this mill levy ask being approved by the voters, it shows that the community really wants to see us move to the zero tailpipe emission fleet as soon as we can,” Aldridge told the Missoula Current. “And as we go out for federal grants, we can show that the community through the local dollars will help support or match those grants.”

Currently, Mountain Line has six electric buses in its 30-bus fleet, with four more electric buses expected in the next two years. Mountain Line has received millions in “competitive” state and federal grants for zero emission transit already, according to Aldridge.

The bus service’s success with past grants is attributed to the passing of a previous mill levy in 2013 and the Zero Fare program started in 2015 that saw ridership jump by nearly 70%, to more than 1.5 million annual riders.

However, after that increase, since 2017 the number of riders has begun to plateau. In 2019, the agency saw a slight decrease in ridership when compared to 2018, according to data on passenger trips per year published by Mountain Line.

Aldridge hopes to see ridership increase after service improvements are implemented from the mill levy.

“Our hope is with these additional service enhancements that we will see an increase in ridership,” he said. “It will make Mountain Line service a more viable option for more people now that we’ll be running seven days a week.”

Service improvements outlined by the mill levy will start being seen in January 2022 after annual taxes from the first tax in November 2021 are implemented.