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At the beginning of the year, Missoula’s Mountain Line launched a significant expansion of bus service that included new routes and zero-fare rides on all routes.

It was a move made possible with strong community support, and it's proven wildly successful. By February, the Missoula Urban Transportation District was reporting that the bus system had logged an all-time high for ridership. That month, Mountain Line provided 100,120 rides, a remarkable 23 percent increase over the February 2014 numbers.

Today, Mountain Line is hoping that the community will again rally in support of public transportation - literally. Mountain Line is participating in a national rally called Stand Up 4 Transportation, designed as a call to action on federal transportation funding.

For years now, Congress has been content to limp along with short-term funding bills for the nation's transportation system. In July 2012, President Obama signed the current surface transportation bill, titled the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (or MAP-21), which provided $105 billion for two years. While that amount may seem like a lot, note that the Congressional Budget Office determined the bill contains significant reforms that will reduce the federal deficit by an estimated $16.3 billion.

But this legislation is set to expire at the end of next month. Hopefully, Congress can pull together enough to at least pass an extension of the bill. Even better: Congress should approve long-term transportation funding which takes into account the growing importance of public transportation systems.

As pointed out in numerous studies, public transportation is good for local communities. It improves public health and enhances the mobility of elderly and disabled individuals. It reduces traffic congestion and helps drive economic growth.

That's why Stand Up 4 Transportation rallies are taking place in communities from California to New York. Across the nation, public transportation provided 10.8 billion rides last year - the highest number of rides in nearly six decades. As ridership increases, so does the need to provide stable, long-term funding for transportation infrastructure.

This is true for Mountain Line as well, which relies on federal funding for transportation infrastructure in addition to community support in order to offer innovative new options like zero-fare service. The three-year demonstration project was boosted with $460,000 in sponsorships from 14 different community partners, including the Missoulian. Additionally, Mountain Line added 15-minute BOLT! service to one of its routes, and began offering service late into the evening.

In Missoula, supporters of public transportation will be gathering in Caras Park starting at 11:45 a.m. today.

“We want Missoulians to span the bridge, and help send a message to Congress that the expansion, maintenance and upkeep of our local public transportation infrastructure are vital to the success of our community,” Eric Hines, chairman of the Missoula Urban Transportation District, said in a prepared statement.

Add your voice to this effort. And if you don't live within walking distance, take the bus to get there.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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