By Martin Kidston

The snow was deep and the weather cold when Mountain Line launched zero fare service in January of 2015. Back then, the transit service had a lofty goal of boosting ridership by 45 percent over the three-year demonstration period, a figure that equates to 400,000 new passengers.

While the agency isn't quite ready to break out the champagne bottles, it's getting close. Mountain Line broke the 1 million mark for the first time last year and, this summer, it surpassed its own expectations by providing 340,000 rides.

“We were predicting this much growth over the three years, and we've seen it in less than two years,” said Bill Pfeiffer, the organization's community outreach coordinator. “We had an incredible August. Our automatic passenger count numbers are event higher.”

In August, Mountain Line provided more than 120,000 rides, marking a 65 percent increase over 2014. Last year's push past 1-million riders represented a 19 percent increase over the prior year.

This past March, Mountain Line also set a one-month ridership record, marking 15 consecutive months of growth. As the routes become better known and more riders seek alternative transportation to commute, the figures could continue to grow.

“We did some ridership surveys this spring, and close to half of the people we surveyed, at least 40 percent, started riding the bus within the last two years,” said Pfeiffer. “It's a combination of people who are already riding now riding more, and a larger portion of riders that have just started riding the bus.”

Mountain Line launched its zero fare service in 2015. The free rides were made possible by 14 community partners who covered Mountain Line’s $460,000 annual fare revenue. The fare amounted to roughly 7 percent of the agency’s budget.

With several Bolt! routes now running and extended service hours in place on several popular routes, commuters are beginning to take note. Roughly 40 percent of those surveyed are now using the bus to commute to work, Pfeiffer said.

“Around 40 percent of those we talked to have access to a car but choose to ride the bus,” Pfieffer said. “We're also seeing more young people. When we compared ages 20 to 30 with 40 to 60, we're seeing a larger portion of those older folks owning carts and a larger portion of younger folks who are not.”

That bodes well for the agency's future as it looks ahead to 2018, when the zero fare project concludes. Pfeiffer said Mountain Line will look to continue the free service by growing its list of community partners and capitalizing off any discretionary funding made available from the federal government.

It's also looking to dust off its long-range plan.

“Every few years we revisit it and see if it still fits with the direction we're going,” Pfeiffer said. “We're going to revisit that process in the coming year. We're still hopeful of eventually having high-frequency service on Brooks Street.”

That effort is closely tied to a separate effort led by the Missoula Midtown Association. How the Brooks Street corridor grows over the coming years could hold implications for an anticipated Bolt! route running up and down the corridor.

“When more people take the bus it means fewer vehicles on the road, less carbon and pollution in the atmosphere, and better air quality for everyone in our community,” Pfeiffer said.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at