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It took a few tries for a bus system in Missoula to stick around.

Several private companies made a go of it, the last leaving town in 1966.

A decade later, interest was high in having a municipal transportation network, and it was eventually put to a vote, which was approved by Missoulians 2 to 1. Taxpayers also committed about $500,000 to help fund the system.

In a Missoulian article detailing the first day of Mountain Line bus service on Dec. 13, 1977, writer Gordon Dillow didn’t mince words about the start, enjoyed by just a handful of riders (217 to be exact).

“What’s not so nice about riding the bus — right now anyway — is the initial complexity of the routes; some errors on the printed schedules concerning transfer points between lines; the fact there are no bus-stop signs set up yet, and the diesel smell of the 1966 General Motors buses the Mountain Line is using.”

But he encouraged Missoulians (like the bell-bottomed young guy featured stepping onto the bus in the accompanying photograph) to at least give it a try, mainly as a way to alleviate commuting anxiety over traffic and parking.

“Letting someone else drive you to work, or to wherever else you’re going, is kind of pleasant,” Dillow wrote. “Especially when it only costs a quarter.”

Despite the slow start, Mountain Line was reaching its 1,000-riders-per-week goal by late 1977; by 1979 Mountain Line had 465,000 annual rides and it’s increased every year since, breaking 1 million riders in 2015 on its way to 40 years of service.

It doesn’t even cost a quarter anymore. Now it’s free, thanks to donations and investment from community sponsors. There’s also a “robust” Paratransit service and wheelchair access, something which came up often in the first years of Mountain Line’s existence (blowing up one day in 1979 when a girl in a wheelchair wasn’t allowed on the bus).

Other things haven’t changed so much. In a 1978 story, bus riders thought of one upgrade Mountain Line hadn’t tried until recently (and still not on weekends): late-night service.

“I think they should take us home from the bars,” a rider told the Missoulian.

Forty years on, the bus system’s core mission is the same: to provide accessible, affordable, safe and environmentally friendly transportation to all.

Bryan Ursery, a Mountain Line driver for 18 of those years, drove Route 6 Friday afternoon in his aviator sunglasses and branded baseball cap. He’s driven a few routes around town before settling into Route 6 the last year.

Pulling over to a stop near Rosauer’s, a woman leaned into the bus to ask Ursery when a Route 8 would come along. He checked his watch and told her when the next one was due, also making sure to radio to the driver that someone was waiting.

If she’d had a schedule, Ursery said, holding up a folded route map, she wouldn’t have had to wait out in the cold so long. But more frequent stops would help, too; just about the only negative thing he had to say about the bus line.

Ursery has noticed a lot more people riding since Zero-Fare started, though he still knows his regular riders by name and says thanks and hi to everyone on and off.

“Our riders are good riders,” he said Friday, driving Route 6 past Reserve Street. “And we want to increase our riders. You can’t increase your riders if you’re not nice.”

All of 2018, Mountain Line is celebrating its 40th anniversary, starting with a party at the Top Hat on Friday, Jan. 12, according to Mountain Line Community Outreach Coordinator Bill Pfeiffer.

The main focus throughout the year is expanding investors in the Zero-Fare program, Pfeiffer said, from 15 to 40 (for 40 years).

Mountain Line is asking anyone and everyone, from nonprofits to small businesses, to large corporations — “pretty much anybody who supports public transit in Missoula” — to invest in keeping the bus free for years to come.

He’s also organizing an event to try to get new riders into the system. Confusion about how and where to ride the bus is still people’s highest barrier to riding, despite Mountain Line’s presence on Google Maps, online and in its own app, Pfeiffer said.

But to still be here at all, much less thriving, is an achievement.

“It’s really a milestone here in Missoula, that we have a public transportation system,” Pfeiffer said. “It existed back in the old days, with the streetcar system.”

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Arts and entertainment

Government reporter for the Missoulian.