The Missoula Urban Transportation District led advocates and several businesses in a noontime rally Thursday to lobby for greater investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, including highways and public transit services.
Organized by the American Public Transportation System in Washington, D.C., the local rally took place alongside dozens held across the county as Congress considers a long-term federal transportation bill.
“About 40 percent of Mountain Line’s budget is federal dollars,” said Andrea Davis, vice president of the transit district’s board of directors. “We would not be able to have the impact we do in Missoula if we don’t have these federal dollars available to us.”
The current transportation funding bill authorized $10.7 billion in 2014 to complete federal transit programs administered by the Federal Transit Administration, and $40 billion for programs under the Federal Highway Administration.
While Congress extended the measure until May of this year, the transportation industry is asking for more reliable and long-term funding as opposed to more short-term extensions.
“If no funding bill gets passed, you would have a delay in reimbursements in federal dollars, and there could be a number of operational challenges that could present for us,” said Davis. “What it would immediately impact is service to Missoulians.”
The urban transit district launched zero-fare service this year. The move coincided with improvements and expanded Mountain Line service, which was funded by a $1.7 million levy approved by 57 percent of voters last year.
Davis said ridership has increased 25 percent since the launch of zero fare. Mountain Line is aiming for an increase of 45 percent over two years, or roughly 400,000 annual passengers.
“We believe we’ll do it,” said Davis. “We have every reason to believe we’ll meet our goal, and the board and staff at Mountain Line are planning for how we ensure we have the infrastructure and operational capacity we need.”
The incentive for achieving increased ridership could bring additional federal dollars, Davis said. The current transportation bill includes caveats based on performance and efficiency.
She expects any future bill would maintain those standards.
“When we can show an increase in demand and better efficiency of service, we’ll be able to bring in more federal dollars to provide more service,” Davis said. “There’s a direct correlation.”
Businesses – including the Missoulian and Montana Marketing Group – turned out their employees to support the event. Roughly 50 people gathered at noon for the “Stand Up 4 Transportation” rally on the Higgins Avenue Bridge.
Supporters included Tom Cook, who believes Mountain Line provides reliable transportation to low-income residents, and Tom Brigham, who wants to see Congress invest in the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
“It’s something you have to keep doing, but Congress hasn’t done anything,” Brigham said. “Roads and infrastructure decay very slowly. Once people notice, it's too late.”