Mountain Line officials were in shock Tuesday morning after learning that Missoula’s bus system won a $2.7 million grant for the purchase of electric buses and upgraded bus stops and signs.

The highly competitive Federal Transit Administration grant is a major boost for implementation of Mountain Line’s 2015 master plan, said community outreach coordinator Bill Pfeiffer.

“We have big hopes, big dreams,” Pfeiffer said. “This funding is really crucial. We are thrilled that it came through. Every transit agency in the country faces a lot of funding challenges, so we couldn’t be happier.”

Missoula received the full amount requested, a “huge surprise” given the competitive nature of the FTA grants, said Vince Caristo, Mountain Line’s project management specialist.

“We’re still wrapping our heads around how significant this really is,” he said.

Last year, just 12 percent of the grant requests were awarded, “so it is very unusual to receive the full amount,” Caristo said.

The funding will enable Mountain Line to replace the three oldest buses in its fleet – two of which have been on the job since 2000 – with state-of-the-art battery electric buses.

That’s a win for the efficiency of Mountain Line’s fleet and the quality of Missoula’s air, said Pfeiffer. And it means each bus rider is doing even more to reduce the vehicle emissions.

“Eighteen years is a long time on the road,” said Caristo. “Bus technology has improved so much in the last 10 years, so our oldest buses run far less efficiently than the newest models. This conversion will make a significant difference for our system.”

The grant also will yield big results for the shelters at stops on Missoula’s two heaviest-ridership routes – Nos. 1 and 2. Mountain Line plans accessibility upgrades, higher-capacity shelters and other improvements.

And the goal is to replace every bus sign in Missoula with a new, easily recognized, uniform version.

“The signs are really the overarching piece of the puzzle,” Pfeiffer said. “Most people rely on the signs to show them where to wait for the bus.

“But it’s hard to recognize some of our existing signs, because we’ve got different versions out there from the ‘80s, ‘90s and the last 10 years. They’re all branded differently, so they don’t jump out at you.”

Mountain Line plans to purchase its electric buses from Proterra.
Mountain Line plans to purchase its electric buses from Proterra.

Mountain Line has been working with the Montana Department of Transportation to design a new bus-stop sign that will benefit both its system and that of the University of Montana, whose Dash buses use some of the same stops.

Late last year, the Missoula Urban Transportation District received a $500,000 award to begin the conversion from diesel to electric buses.  But that money was only enough to cover the difference between the lower-cost diesel vehicles and their higher-priced, cleaner-driving electric cousins.

The new Federal Transit Administration funding should pick up the rest of the tab.

Mountain Line is purchasing Proterra electric buses, hoping for delivery in early 2019. In making the change, it is following the lead of the University of Montana. The Associated Students of UM put its first electric bus into service in 2016.

Proterra’s buses come with rapidly recharging batteries that offer a range of 50 to 150 miles. The company says that operating a diesel bus costs $1.03 per mile, while its electric buses cost just 19 cents a mile.

ASUM estimated its shift to an electric bus saves more than 123,000 gallons of fuel and cuts carbon emissions by 1,300 tons. Over the life of the vehicle, ASUM believes it will save $89,000.

Mountain Line also expects to achieve considerable cost savings on diesel once the electric rigs join the fleet, although the exact amount hasn’t been calculated. The city system has 25 large buses and 11 smaller models.

“Our public transit system really benefits everyone in Missoula, whether you ride the bus or not,” Pfeiffer said. “It diverts single-occupancy trips. And because we are moving the fleet to cleaner vehicles, it will really benefit us all from an airshed perspective.

“We couldn’t be happier.”

Officials thanked Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester for helping secure the grant money. Both issued a written statement congratulating the city system on its successful application.

“Strengthening Missoula’s bus transportation system will continue to put Missoula on the map as one of the nation’s most livable cities and attract new businesses,” Daines said.

Tester said, “Whether going to work, school, or the grocery store, folks in Missoula rely on the zero fare Mountain Line. This grant will help to make Missoula’s transit system more efficient and eco-friendly so folks can get where they’re going on time.”

The full amount of the grant was $2,726,88.