There weren't many people at the downtown transfer center on a recent Tuesday after the morning commuter rush had passed. One man smoked on a bench, another hopped off his bike to squint at the spinning cylinder that displays the bus schedule before pedaling away. Waiting riders were outnumbered by a trio of people who'd set up a free Christian literature stand next to the shelter.
But don't be fooled by the empty terminal. Mountain Line counted a record 1.56 million rides last year across its 12 routes, an average of about 5,000 every day that buses ran. The figure indicates that bus riders are a small fraction of Missoula commuters, but it significantly exceeds the number that Mountain Line operators hoped to achieve.
The ridership surge stems from a demonstration program, started in 2015, to eliminate fares on Mountain Line buses. When zero-fare was announced, Mountain Line officials estimated the move would increase rides 45 percent by January 2018, the date the project's funding would expire. The increase to date is 70 percent.
"We blew it out of the water," general manager Corey Aldridge told Missoula City Council recently.
The switch is drawing new riders and enabling regular bus users to ride it more often. A ridership survey last year found that half of respondents began using the bus after zero-fare was implemented, while 48 percent said they ride more often because of the change. Mountain Line riders are split evenly between commuters and all-purpose users, and a majority—57 percent—identify as low income.
With zero-fare showing results, the program is about to get a top-off. Mountain Line secured contributions from 15 public and private groups to provide the $470,000 that riders would otherwise pay in annual fares. In May, those partners met in Mayor John Engen's office and made a verbal commitment to renew zero-fare for another three years, Mountain Line community outreach coordinator Bill Pfeiffer says.
Public entities contribute the majority of zero-fare funds, with University of Montana/ASUM Transportation contributing $205,000 annually and the City of Missoula chipping in $100,000 annually. (The city's contribution is separate from a voter-approved levy that funded a simultaneous expansion of route service). Private commercial donors include St. Patrick Hospital at $25,000 per year and Southgate Mall at $1,500.
Given the increased ridership, Mountain Line wants to increase funding for the program by about 10 percent, Pfeiffer says. The organization wants to broaden its buy-in, too. Mountain Line's 40th anniversary is in December, prompting a push to bring the number of zero-fare partners to 40 as well. Supporting zero-fare made sense for large employers such as St. Patrick, which previously purchased fare cards for its employees. "Instead of buying fares or passes for their clients, they're now giving those benefits to the entire community," Aldridge told City Council.
Following that logic, officials are confident they can convince more partners to step onboard.