The local economy would take an estimated $4.7 million hit if Mountain Line weren’t part of it, according to a new study.
That’s one conclusion of an economic impact analysis conducted by the Montana Department of Transportation and released recently by Mountain Line general manager Michael Tree. The report addressed whether the bus line is a net gain or loss in nine counties of western Montana.
“I don’t think people realize that for every job that’s there at Mountain Line providing service, there is another job created in the private sector,” Tree said. “That was a key highlight for me.”
Mountain Line has a $4.5 million operating budget; roughly $1.5 million comes from the federal government, $600,000 from fares, and the rest from property taxes, according to the agency. The report notes nearly 60 percent of its operating costs are covered by local public support and fares.
“It’s a good exercise in is Mountain Line a taxpayer problem? Or a positive economic impact?” Tree said.
At least one member of the Missoula City Council questioned the lack of depth in the report, but its findings note positive impacts and include the following:
n Mountain Line produces roughly 100 jobs in Missoula and western Montana with an average wage of $38,000, Tree said. Half are direct employees, but the other jobs are outside the agency.
“The other 51, 52 jobs actually are in the private sector, and they’re jobs created from the fuel Mountain Line buys, the parts that Mountain Line buys, the construction projects that Mountain Line has had go on in the past,” Tree said.
If Mountain Line went away, 33 of those jobs would remain because private money from the property tax would go back to the taxpayer and generate economic activity, Tree said. But 63 of the jobs would disappear, the study said.
n In 2012 and 2013, Mountain Line will bring in $2.39 million in income in northwest Montana each year. In other words, if the local money that goes to Mountain Line went back to taxpayers instead, “personal income in the area would decline” by $2.39 million annually, according to the report.
n Doing away with Mountain Line also would “produce $2.3 million less in goods and services” in both 2012 and 2013 in nine counties in western Montana, the report says.
The study, conducted by Hal Fossum in the rail, transit and planning division of the Montana Department of Transportation’s economics program, acknowledges that pulling local support out of Mountain Line would increase the incomes of individuals. However, it says “the need to spend money on other transportation would also increase.”
On the whole, the report notes the money spent on Mountain Line is a net positive for the region, technically Montana Department of Transportation District 1.
But the report is barely three pages long, and Missoula City Councilman Adam Hertz said it’s far too simplistic for its conclusions to be accepted without some skepticism. If taxpayers had the opportunity to spend the money differently, they might make decisions that spur more economic activity than Mountain Line does, Hertz said.
The study addressed whether Mountain Line alone offers a positive impact, Hertz said, and he isn’t surprised at the conclusion. But he said a better study would compare the investment into Mountain Line against other options.
“I’m not saying that Mountain Line is a bad thing. It just is a really poor study,” Hertz said.
When reached for comment last week, Fossum said he would pass the request onto the Montana Department of Transportation’s public information officer to follow protocol; when reached again, he said the request remained pending.
In a brief section titled “policy issues,” the report also notes Mountain Line is forecast to have positive impacts on tourism, land use patterns, safety, and pollution.
“This analysis does not quantify livability impacts of the Mountain Line program, which are significant transportation goals in the Missoula area,” the report says. “The economic impacts from livability, though not estimated here, would likely be positive. Measuring those benefits is beyond the reach of this analysis.”