Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Mountain Line's fleet of electric buses has grown in number in recent years and now represents nearly half of the agency's fleet. And as service has grown, ridership continues to impress those with an eye on public transit.

But Mountain Line still faces one significant barrier to additional growth, that being a lack of space to park its buses and maintain its fleet. Without more room, it can't expand service.

“The biggest need we have right now is more space. We've been out of space since 2015,” said communication's specialist Olga Kreimer.

Mountain Line has applied for two grants from the Federal Transit Administration that, if awarded, would help fund the cost of a new operations facility. As it stands, the agency remains squeezed into a small 2-acre parcel where it has conducted operations for years – long before the arrival of its first electric bus.

Despite the cramped confines, the agency has grown its fleet of electric buses to 12, grown its staff from 60 to 100, and has expanded service by roughly 30%, including seven-day service.

Along the way, Mountain Line also has committed to zero-tailpipe emissions by 2035. Kreimer said the agency has plans to do more but is unable to grow given its lack of a proper transit facility.

“Missoulians want us to increase service, and we want to increase service, but right now we're constrained by not being able to fit any additional buses into our property,” Kreimer said. “A new facility would be fully electric to support our zero tailpipe emission goals and get us closer to being fully electric.”

A rendering of a new operations facility Mountain Line presented last year.
A rendering of a new operations facility Mountain Line presented last year.

Funding aside, the agency has sought but not yet found a suitable location in Missoula to build such a facility. Board member Don MacArthur last year described it as the agency's most pressing challenge, one it will need to overcome before moving forward.

Transit officials have said the facility's location must be close to existing routes to maintain efficiency, especially given its electric fleet. So far, efforts to find that location haven't worked out.

“We're still waiting for the moving parts to fall into place before moving forward,” said Kreimer. “We're still looking for the space that's going to have what we need. There's no perfect location, but we're still going through that process.”

The two Federal Transit Administration grants sought by Mountain Line include a Bus and Bus Facilities Grant, and a Low or No Emissions Grant. The effort has generated broad community support, including that of Missoula County, which is backing the agency's pursuit of $40 million in funding.

In a letter to the FTA, the county noted the role that Mountain Line's zero fare program plays in providing equitable service to Missoula residents. The agency's fleet of electric buses also contribute to the city and county's climate reduction goals.

“Building a larger, fully electric Maintenance Operations Administration Base Facility will enable Mountain Line to continue expanding a critical service for all Missoulians while prioritizing a sustainable future,” the county wrote in its letter of support. “An expanded facility for Mountain Line supports the county's mission to provide quality public service to protect and enhance the well-being of our residents, communities and the environment.”

Kreimer said other organizations have also provided letters of support, and with $10 million available to match the requested $40 million federal grant, Mountain Line has high hopes of receiving funding for a new facility.

“We've gotten some really robust support from community organization. It's not easy to get a hefty federal grant,” said Kreimer. “We've tried before and if we're not successful, we'll try again. Having the community behind us will help that dream become a reality sooner rather than later.”