Tom Menefee has been riding Mountain Line buses for a couple of years, and he's pleased the trips soon will be free.

"I think that's pretty cool," said Menefee, who had hopped off a Route 2 bus near Target on his way to Walmart. "They're giving back to the people that have been paying for the rides all these years that they've been here."

On Monday, Jan. 5, the transit agency kicks off fare-free buses for Menefee and the other passengers who account for the roughly 1 million rides Mountain Line provided in 2014.

Bus managers estimate the change will boost ridership some 40 percent in the next three years. The pilot project costs an additional $400,000 a year, roughly 9 percent of the agency's budget, with partner organizations contributing the extra amount.

Some veteran riders are looking forward to saving money on fares, and Mountain Line has plans to hold training sessions so new customers learn their way around the system.

However, operations manager Jeffrey Logan said the free rides aren't a help to only those on board.

"It benefits everybody," Logan said. "There's not just a select group. Those who ride, and those who don't ride. It decreases traffic congestion. It provides more people with more opportunities who may be on a budget, but others as well."

***

One measure of success for the project is if it pushes up ridership some 45 percent in three years, said Dorothy Magnusen, Mountain Line's interim general manager. She said she anticipates more repeat riders, and then more "choice" riders, additional people choosing the bus.

"It will not happen overnight," Magnusen said. "It will slowly rise in the next six months, and then it will peak somewhere in the second year, we're expecting, and then level out after that."

More passengers on Mountain Line means less traffic congestion, better air quality, and a contribution to Missoula's adopted philosophy to focus development inward rather than sprawling, according to the agency.

A couple of demographics that are expected to increase are middle and high school students, as well as seniors. To introduce new people to the buses, Mountain Line is reaching out to Missoula County Public Schools and may do some rider education.

"If needed, there will be some training on that, taking groups of students to the bus stop and getting them on the bus and giving them proper etiquette for the bus," Magnusen said.

The agency also anticipates an increase in the number of passengers taking short trips of just a few blocks.

To decide where the agency should put its resources, Mountain Line held a series of public forums and conducted community surveys in 2012. Magnusen said the transit organization will do similar outreach toward the end of the pilot to review whether Missoulians deem free buses a success, too.

*** 

To implement the change, Mountain Line is working with Missoula Aging Services, one of 14 organizations helping to fund the fare-free system.

(Voters approved a mill levy increase for the buses in 2013, but none of those dollars are going to the fare-free program, according to Mountain Line. Rather, those dollars are increasing service on a couple of routes and extending hours into the evening.)

Susan Kohler, executive director of Missoula Aging Services, said transportation is a "significant issue with the aging population."

"Most people outlive their ability to drive by 10 years," Kohler said.

The fare-free buses are important for the population the agency serves for a couple of reasons, she said. First of all, many older people are concerned about finances.

Secondly, the program lets seniors start practicing using the bus before they are forced to do so. Mountain Line also plans to do some training for the clients of Aging Services.

"It can be a very difficult transition for people to have to give up driving," Kohler said.

If seniors need help loading packages, though, they can still opt to use the paratransit and van service instead of the regular fixed line. The hope, Kohler said, is that when people eventually have to give up their keys, they won't have as difficult a transition to make.

"They'll realize the bus is a fun way to get to their destination," she said.

She anticipates the percentage of seniors riding the bus will increase, but it will come after education and peer-to-peer programs are underway.

***

Mountain Line is embarking on the change at a time it is without a permanent general manager.

Former manager Michael Tree left in November to take a job in California. Interim manager Magnusen, however, said Tree left the agency prepared for the transition.

"Michael did a very good job getting us set up to do this," she said. "By the time he left, we were in very good shape. We have not been concerned about the implementation."

She said she hopes Mountain Line will finalize the hire of a permanent director in January and the individual will start work by early February. 

To launch the fare-free program, the agency hired eight new employees, including drivers, mechanics, and customer service representatives. This fall, Mountain Line unveiled three new buses, and those will be in operation starting Jan. 5, too.

In addition to the free rides, the agency is adding services on several routes. Route 2 is getting "Bolt" service, where buses run every 15 minutes; Route 6 is going to 30-minute service; and Routes 1, 2, 6 and 7 will offer evening service during the week.

***

Last week, David Hertz boarded the bus at Southgate Mall. Hertz, who doesn't own a car and has been taking the bus for at least three years, likes the idea of free rides because it'll be a boost to his pocketbook.

"I'm all for it because I'm on a fixed income. Sometimes, I have a hard time getting enough change for the fare," Hertz said.

Driver Scottie Nelson, who has been at the wheel for Mountain Line some 13 years, said he's all for zero fares if the program is being done for the right reasons. He'd like to see the change help people who don't have money and also bring those who don't drive on board.

He anticipates the fare-free option will affect operations in at least one way.

"It'll probably speed up our routes," Nelson said.

One concern some people have is that transients who camp out on street corners will hang out on warm buses instead – with no destination in mind.

Nelson, though, said the buses have rules. Eventually, riders have to get off the bus, and drivers have been told to call home base if they are dealing with troublemakers.

Operations manager Logan said the agency doesn't want to deal with people who aren't actually riding to get to a destination. But he said those who want to do so already can use the various passes offered in Missoula, and they don't because they don't want to be bothered.

"We don't want people camping out, either. We're not a shelter. We're a public transportation service. That's what we do," Logan said.

***

According to a report on World Transit Research, possible disadvantages of going fare-free include increases in vandalism, more security and maintenance costs, slower service, and revenue shortfalls. However, the 2002 report also notes the downsides are more applicable to larger systems than smaller ones.

One challenge Mountain Line is anticipating in the future is full buses. Logan said when routes are over capacity, Mountain Line will dispatch "tripper" buses to pick up riders who get left behind.

"I don't expect that to be a really big problem at first," Logan said.

The buses have an automatic passenger counting system that will help the agency forecast where the "tripper" buses are needed.

Logan started working for Mountain Line in 2014, and before then, he saw other transit agencies make the switch to free rides. He said none were as effective in making the change as Missoula has been.

"This has been a pretty good experience, helping implement it for a change," Logan said. "These changes are going to benefit everybody in Missoula."

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Reporter for the Missoulian