Before Monday, Amy Rad was spending $10 every week to take Mountain Line buses from Franklin School to her job at the Arby’s restaurant on North Reserve Street.
Now, Rad will save that $520 a year because Mountain Line officially launched a three-year zero-fare demonstration project, made possible by $460,000 in sponsorship money from 14 different community partners.
Simply put, riding all Mountain Line buses is now free, and it means a lot to people like Rad.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do with the extra money, but I’m very excited,” she said.
Candy McCarver was waiting at the transfer center in downtown Missoula on Monday morning. Because she was getting a senior citizen discount, she estimated that she spent $5 a week on bus fare to get to work and run errands. The zero-fare initiative was welcome news to her.
“I keep fighting the urge to dig in my pocket for money,” she said.
Like many others waiting at the transfer center, McCarver said she’ll probably ride the bus even more now that it’s free.
Mountain Line officials say the benefits of the zero-fare service are expected to be substantial over the next few years.
“Zero-fare service combined with Phase 2 improvements is expected to result in a 45 percent increase in ridership over the next three years, which benefits us all,” said Mountain Line spokesperson Topher Williams. “Mountain Line has been our community bus system for nearly 37 years. We are excited about this new chapter, in which public transportation is more accessible than it has ever been before.”
Mountain Line officials say encouraging people to take the bus benefits everyone by decreasing traffic congestion, improving air quality and helping older Missoulians and people with disabilities remain active and mobile.
Missoula Mayor John Engen said the zero-fare program will substantially increase ridership, help buses operate more efficiently and make better use of transit dollars.
“A fare, no matter how small, is a barrier for some folks that keeps them from riding the bus,” he said. “Breaking down barriers to public transportation means we all pay less in the long run, that our air is cleaner, our roads suffer a little less wear and tear, traffic is tempered and, most importantly, all of our citizens have access to safe, efficient transportation.”
Also taking effect Monday were changes financed by a $1.7 million mill levy approved by voters in the fall of 2013. The money is being used to implement Phase 2 of the Missoula Urban Transportation District’s “Long Range Transportation Plan.”
Mountain Line’s Route 2 has become Missoula’s second Bolt! Route, bringing 15-minute service to several locations, including the Westside, North Reserve, the Good Food Store and Southgate Mall. Additionally, late evening service on routes 1, 2, 6 and 7 will enable Missoulians to access transit until 9:50 p.m. Monday through Friday. Also, people with disabilities will see increased paratransit support, which allows them easier access to buses.
The new changes mean a lot to people like Mikey Edwards, who said she rides the bus every day. She will save at least $500 per year.
“I think with them doing the new routing and the new schedules and the new (zero-fare program), I think they will get more business, once this weather goes away,” she said.
Edwards said she uses the bus to get to the mall and look for work. She estimates that she sometimes sees between 20 and 30 people on the buses when she rides.
“Sometimes they get so full that you have to be standing,” she said. “It’s busiest right after the kids get out of school, and I’d say 5 o'clock, too, because that’s when people get out of work. It’s convenient for people.”
Of course, as luck would have it, Mother Nature decided to send down freezing rain that caused traffic havoc around much of western Montana on Monday.
"Today went pretty good, considering all the crazy weather that we were having," Williams said. "I was pretty impressed with the way we were able to pull it off. We had no detours, and we were running as close to on time as possible."
Williams said he expects ridership to increase gradually over the next three years, but he is not ready to make any predictions about just how many more people will take advantage of free bus fares.
For more information on Mountain Line, zero-fare, Phase 2 or other changes to the system, visit mountainline.com/your-future-mountain-line.