When Mountain Line launched its zero fare service in early 2015, it hoped to grow its ridership 45 percent by the end of three years. But just one year into the demonstration project, it has nearly reached its goal.

Corey Aldridge, Mountain Line's general manager, said the service broke the 1-million rider mark last year by offering 1.2 million rides. The busiest month came in October when 118,000 passengers jumped on the bus.

With numbers in for early this year, the service continues to set new monthly records.

“We were kind of concerned that we'd see it flatten out after the first year, or see a decline,” said Aldridge. “So far, in January and February, we're seeing an increase in riders over the previous year.”

January ridership topped 107,000 passengers – a 12 percent increase over last January. February saw nearly 123,000 riders – a 23-percent jump over the same month last year.

Aldridge said Mountain Line could achieve its three-year goal sooner than expected.

“We're hoping to see by the end of this year that we meet our goal a year early in reaching that 45 percent increase,” he said. “After year one, we saw a 38-percent increase. That's equivalent to 350,000 additional rides. It's a remarkably different transit system with zero fare.”

The zero fare demonstration project began in 2015 after 14 community partners helped make ridership free by covering Mountain Line's $460,000 annual fare revenue. The figure accounted for roughly 7.5 percent of Mountain Line's overall budget.

Aldridge said Destination Missoula recently signed on as the project's 15th and newest partner.

“Our partners came together to pay the cost of the fares to allow for zero fare,” Aldridge said. “They were already buying passes for their employees and clients. Now they're applying that benefit that was good for a small group of people so it benefits the entire community.”

While free rides have transformed the city's transit system, Aldridge attributes part of the success to the addition of late evening service on four popular routes. The addition of 15-minute service increased ridership on Route 2 by 106 percent.

“Our biggest concern now is overcrowding on buses,” said Aldridge. “We've been able to handle all of the capacity, so we haven't run into issues yet, but that's something we're monitoring.”

Aldridge said Mountain Line will continue with its new bus-stop master plan. The evolving document details future routes, the spacing of stops and needed amenities. The busiest stops would see shelters and benches under the new plan.

“We have a system that has grown tremendously, but what we're missing is some of the infrastructure to match that,” he said. “Our stops aren't easily identifiable. We want people to recognize it as a Mountain Line stop.”

Aldridge said funding the infrastructure needs would require a federal grant, one the transit district is actively pursuing. Without a grant, he said, it could take decades to make the improvements.

“We'd like to do signage throughout the system so there's that uniform look,” he said. “We have 35 or 40 stops that don't have any signage whatsoever. After the signage is in, we'd move on to our busiest routes and implement the amenities.”