The residents of Missoula’s pollution-prone, mountainous valley will breathe a little easier in the near future, thanks to a federal grant that bought six new exhaust-free buses.
Mountain Line, the city’s community public bus service, announced Thursday that it has received a $500,000 federal Low-No Emissions grant from the Federal Transit Administration to purchase the Proterra electric buses, due to arrive this summer.
At a press conference, city officials lauded the fact that 23 different community partners have stepped up financially to make all Mountain Line buses free to ride, called “Zero-fare.” Ridership on Mountain Line’s bus system has increased over 70 percent since Zero-fare was launched in 2015, and the buses now provide over 1.5 million rides every year.
“Thanks to the significant ridership gains due to Zero-fare, Mountain Line successfully won a federal 'Low-No' grant,” explained Bill Pfeiffer, the community outreach coordinator for Mountain Line, in an email. “Running electric buses instead of diesel will result in a significant reduction in carbon and other air pollutants, and an improvement in Missoula's overall air quality.”
Ronni Flannery of the American Lung Association said fewer tailpipes means a healthier community and less greenhouse gases, especially in the winter when inversions trap air at the valley floor. Mountain Line’s other buses run on diesel fuel.
“More than 40 components of diesel exhaust are classified as hazardous air pollutants by the (Environmental Protection Agency) and 15 of those are also listed as known, probable or possible carcinogens,” she said. “Diesel exhaust also contains ultrafine particles, considered to be the most dangerous of all particulate pollutants because they are small enough to be carried deeply into the lungs when inhaled and can move into the bloodstream and reach any organ in the body.
"And lastly, virtually all exhaust from transportation vehicles is emitted at ground level where people work, play and breathe.”
She said transportation-caused air pollution disproportionately causes respiratory illnesses in children and the elderly, who are more susceptible. And, she added, two-thirds of all transportation-related air pollution comes from diesel engines.
“So shifting to zero-emissions buses means our community’s health will benefit from less local exposure to carcinogenic diesel exhaust and we locally contribute to reducing our dependence on harmful fossil fuels,” she said.
Mayor John Engen, who was dealing with a bad cold that he jokingly referred to as the “bubonic plague,” called the new buses “big, cool and expensive.”
“It’s a big deal for us to get these buses, it really is,” he said. “Public transit agencies from around Montana and across the country keep asking us ‘How can we do this?’ Our Zero-fare program demonstrates what is possible when public and private organizations work together to tackle a common community goal, in this case reducing the barriers to riding public transit.”
Amy Cilimburg, the chair of the Missoula Urban Transportation District that operates Mountain Line, said free public buses reduce traffic and parking congestion in Missoula, help kids get to school, help the elderly get to doctor’s appointments and make life easier for the community.
“The Zero-fare program and our many partners continue to benefit us all by not only improving accessibility, but also by helping us to increase federal investment in our local transportation systems,” she said. “Thanks to our Zero-fare partners, our congressional delegation, Mountain Line staff, and above all, our many riders, Mountain Line’s buses will soon be running cleaner and greener than ever before.”
Last year, Mountain Line secured enough funding from the 23 community partners to fund Zero-fare through at least 2020, and the agency will look to increase partners in the coming year.
Clint Summers, the CFO of Missoula Federal Credit Union, said the company contributes to Zero-fare because it believes Missoula is a stronger community with access to public transit.
Ellis Walker-Keleher, a seventh-grader at Missoula International School, said he takes a Mountain Line bus to school every day.
“I did the math, and I believe I save my parents two hours of driving every week by taking the bus, and I keep 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere per year,” he said.
Mountain Line also received a $2.7 million discretionary Bus and Bus Facilities grant to fund improvements to bus stops in 2019, which Cilimburg said was “unheard of” and thanks to Zero-fare raising the agency’s national profile.
“Our Zero-fare program has not only helped make Mountain Line the most successful public transit system in Montana, it’s also helped put us on the map for transit nationally,” Cilimburg added. “Today we’re celebrating the great work we’ve done thus far and we’re hoping to keep that momentum moving forward.”