Mountain Line is tying the expansion of its fleet of electric buses to the relocation and development of its proposed master facility, where it hopes to launch the organization into the next chapter of public transportation.

The agency, which has grown significantly over the last decade, has adopted a goal of reaching zero tailpipe emissions by 2035. But to get there, it will need more electric vehicles and a place to store, maintain and charge them.

“We're really at capacity for expanding any other service in our community because we have no more space to put vehicles,” said Mountain Line spokesperson Shanti Johnson. “This has far-reaching implications for our city and our goals. In order to add new areas of service, we need to add vehicles to our fleet, and in order do that, we need more space.”

Mountain Line in April announced its plans to pursue a $54 million federal Bus Facilities Grant for a new master facility in the Scott Street area. Missoula County officially backed that effort in a letter of support this week.

The lofty grant requires a match. For that, Mountain line has roughly $10 million available and will likely ask the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to provide the remaining $3.5 million. It also sought from the city a letter of intent to sell 3.5 acres of public property at a price to be determined if the grant application is successful.

Mountain Line's proposed facility in the Scott Street area.
Mountain Line's proposed facility in the Scott Street area.

Johnson on Thursday also noted Mountain Line's intent to submit a second application for 10 more electric buses. If successful, electric buses would represent 90% of the agency's fixed-route bus fleet.

“We're conducting a comprehensive study now to understand how our different models of electric buses are performing,” said Johnson. “We have three different models. This study will help inform how we move forward.”

Mountain Line landed its first six electric buses in 2019 and operated them on a pilot basis to see how they would perform in a northern climate. The results were pleasing, and six more electric buses were later secured, bringing the current fleet to 12.

Johnson said the technology isn't yet available to convert Mountain Line's smaller para-transit buses to electric. But Mountain Line has proven that electric-powered public transportation is a viable option in Montana, she added.

“The short answer, it works well for us,” she said. “While there's been some learning as we transition to an electric fleet, over all its been overwhelming successful for our community.”