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If buses run every 15 minutes downtown, hopping on board could be more convenient for “thousands” of people who work in the city center – and others who want to play there.

That’s the perspective of some downtowners, including Anne Guest, director of the Missoula Parking Commission.

This year, Mountain Line is changing its routes, and any decision the board makes will have a ripple effect on other transportation organizations, such as the Parking Commission, and the vitality of the city center.

“If it works right and is in sync with everything else, it’s going to be a great asset for the downtown,” Guest said.

She said anything that cuts the need for actual parking spots will help with traffic, and that, in turn, helps the Missoula Parking Commission.

At 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 19, the Mountain Line board will hold a public hearing in City Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St., to consider updates to its routes. A vote is anticipated, and any changes likely will be implemented on Aug. 27.

This year, the local transit agency conducted a comprehensive analysis of its system, the first since 2003, according to general manager Michael Tree. The overarching goal is to develop tighter routes that match other planning efforts in Missoula, which focused on the urban core.

“The big emphasis in the planning process was to create a more efficient Mountain Line, and create a more user-friendly Mountain Line that was more livable,” Tree said. “And when you go to 15-minute service in public transit, it becomes very livable because it becomes virtually schedule-less.”

Route 1, which runs from downtown Missoula to Southgate Mall, is slated for 15-minute service in the first phase of the proposed changes. It’s the busiest route, and Mountain Line estimates the increase in frequency will contribute to an overall boost in ridership of 7 percent during the week, or 68,000 more rides a year.

In March, the bus system and consultant held public workshops on route alternatives, and they developed a “preferred alternative” based on feedback from the public. At public meetings, one of the least popular changes was the elimination of Route 10; Mountain Line has since proposed to serve those customers with a van pool instead.

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Other changes are as follows, according to a Mountain Line summary:

Improved frequency:

• Route 1 would operate every 15 minutes between downtown and Southgate Mall.

• Route 8 is realigned and operates with 30-minute peak frequency.

Improvements on timeliness:

• Route modifications to address major on-time performance on Routes 5, 6, 7, 9 and 12.

• Route 8 to UM is adjusted and route no longer serves downtown.

Reductions in service to less productive areas:

• Route 10 is eliminated due to low performing service.

• Route 9 would operate during peak hours only.

• Routes 3 and 5 service levels would drop during peak times.

Any changes must be budget neutral because Mountain Line isn’t anticipating an increase in funding, said board of directors Chairman Don MacArthur.

The proposal on the table is slated to boost the number of riders, but it’s one of the more modest approaches the consultant suggested. Just one route – Route 10 to the old Frenchtown mill – goes away; van pools may run out there instead, although Tree said the board won’t take up that item Thursday.

According to MacArthur, the board aims to maximize the performance of the system based on “the way Missoula is now and the way Missoula wants to be.” That means in discussion Thursday, board members will look for “the sweet spot” that best balances those needs.

Consultants have identified ways the system isn’t working – like running on time – and suggested fixes. The proposed changes have been a topic of high public interest, and MacArthur said the board is anxious to hear from the public again, and it’s eager to put a new plan in place.

“You learn to live with the status quo and embrace it, and we’ve been successful. We love that the community is riding more and more, and we want to support that and continue that, and you know, design our system so that it works better and better,” MacArthur said.

The projected increase of almost 70,000 more rides a year is “dramatic” and a benefit to the mall and University of Montana as well, according to Rod Austin, of the Business Improvement District. The number of employees downtown runs in the thousands, he said, but most people coming to and from the downtown area don’t live there.

“You’re transporting yourself one way or another to get here, and we’re trying to make those options better for you,” Austin said.

Mountain Line also noted changes proposed for Saturdays:

• All routes operating on Saturdays would run identical alignments to those proposed on weekdays.

• Route 9 Saturday service is eliminated due to low performing service.

• Route 4 would operate more frequently during Saturdays.

• Route 5 would operate at 60-minute frequencies instead of 30-minute frequencies.

• Route 7 would serve Walmart on Saturdays, Route 12 would no longer serve Walmart.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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