Mountain Line buses to be emissions-free by 2035; transition to take time

City Council president Bryan von Lossberg steps off Mountain Line’s first electric bus after taking a short ride around the city on Wednesday, July 25, 2019. The Missoula Urban Transportation District adopted a resolution a few months ago to eliminate all buses with carbon emissions within 15 years. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

With vehicle emissions being one of the primary sources of Missoula’s pollution, Mountain Line has resolved not to be part of the problem.

Many people who’ve gotten out recently to hike Mount Sentinel, Mount Jumbo or even Waterworks Hill have commented on the clarity of the views. Standing on Waterworks Hill, one can easily see past Ch-paa-qn Peak in the northwest and far up the Bitterroot Valley, past St. Mary’s Peak to the south.

Where once almost perpetual haze hovered over the valley, the air has cleared. That’s because far fewer cars and trucks have clogged Missoula’s streets during more than a month of the coronavirus shutdown, so less dust and vehicle exhaust fill the air.

Now as COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to lift, those sights may again disappear but eventually, it won’t be the fault of Mountain Line buses.

The Missoula Urban Transportation District adopted a resolution a few months ago to eliminate all buses with carbon emissions within 15 years.

“Despite improvements over the past decade, air quality remains a serious issue in Missoula, especially during winter inversions and summer wildfire season,” said Amy Cilimburg, MUTD board member and executive director of Climate Smart Missoula in a prepared statement. “Breathing challenges can have far greater implications than we ever imagined, as we’ve seen firsthand with the spread of COVID-19 around the world.”

Vehicle exhaust is now Missoula’s largest source of local greenhouse gas emissions, according to a Greenhouse Gas Inventory conducted by Climate Smart Missoula in March 2017. Emissions levels could rise even more in the summer because scientists predict that wildfire seasons will be longer and more severe due to a warming climate.

A 2019 collaborative analysis by Mountain Line staff and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found using an electric bus – charged by Montana’s power sources – reduces annual carbon dioxide emissions by 77% compared to a diesel bus.

So now is the time to start making some changes.

“It’s an ambitious goal, and we don’t have all the answers for how we’re going to achieve it by 2035, but it is really exciting,” said Jesse Dodson, MUTD board chair. “Our commitment to a zero-tailpipe-emissions fleet creates opportunities for innovation and collaboration. We’re committed to moving Missoula forward sustainably, factoring in public health, clean air and our carbon footprint.”

Mountain Line has already begun by adding its first six electric buses last year. But with a fleet size of 30 buses and 12 paratransit vehicles, Mountain Line has a ways to go. And new buses aren’t cheap.

Communications specialist Shanti Johnson said the Mountain Line fleet is aging so managers will keep buses as long as they can to be sustainable before replacing them with either electric buses or ones that might use a different technology. Hence the need for 15 years.

Johnson said the board had wanted to publicize the resolution when the decision was made at the end of February, but the timing wasn’t right. The news about coronavirus spreading into the U.S. was just hitting, making other events more important.

They decided to save the news for Earth Day, April 22, but that ended up being the day Gov. Steve Bullock announced that Montana would start phasing out the shelter-in-place restrictions. So the resolution announcement again took a backseat.

The other news is Mountain Line is making the best of having to reduce its route service by offering free community Wi-Fi hotspots. Earlier this week, it started parking one of its Wi-Fi-equipped electric buses in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church at 235 S. 5th St. W. from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.

Only drive-in traffic is allowed and users need their own computer devices.

On Thursday, Mountain Line added another location at the Missoula Public Library where people can walk in and drive up.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.