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The holiday shopping season is an especially wonderful time to get acquainted - or re-acquainted - with the local bus service. Shoppers who travel by bus don't have to pay for gas nor parking, so they have a little more to spend on gifts. And they don't have to contend with traffic nor search for a parking spot, freeing up more time to spend with loved ones. 

Of course, bus riders save more than just time and money. Every bus rider means one less car on the road, which helps keep Missoula's streets flowing freely and our air quality unpolluted with extra vehicle emissions. 

At only $1 for a general fare, a Mountain Line bus ride is already a bargain. But starting Jan. 5, everyone can ride for free, on all routes, all the time.

This is a big deal for Missoula. Many studies of bus service in other communities have demonstrated that zero-fare service increases ridership at least 20 percent and as much as 60 percent. It makes riding the bus more affordable, certainly, but also more convenient, because riders don't need to concern themselves with carrying cash. 

The three-year pilot program is being made possible through the support of more than a dozen public agencies and private businesses, including the Missoulian. These organizations recognize the value in ever-improving bus service - just as Missoula voters did in 2013, when they approved the $1.7 million mill levy for Mountain Line. 

The funds are being put to good use expanding local bus service, which required the addition of several new vehicles. For instance, in 2012 Mountain Line was able to add a Bolt! route offering service every 15 minutes on Route 1 – that's the route that runs from downtown Missoula to the University of Montana and to Southgate Mall. The service proved popular, with ridership increasing more than 50 percent, and now Bolt! service will be expanded to both routes 1 and 2 in the new year. 

With bus service every 15 minutes between 7 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. most days of the week, riders will spend next to no time spent shivering in the cold - and no time at all waiting for the car to warm up. The two routes cover almost all of Missoula with the help of smaller buses running on routes 1, 2, 6 and 7. Better still, these routes are expanding service into the late evening, meaning buses will be running until 10 p.m. 

These changes and others were identified during the Missoula Urban Transporation District planning process, which looks to implement improvements in five phases through 2040. The plan was created under the direction of former Mountain Line General Manager Michael Tree, who left Missoula in early November in order to work at a transit agency in his home state of California. Mountain Line expects to hire a general manager in the new year as well.

In the meantime, the agency will continue working to make Mountain Line the preferred choice of transportation for all Missoulians. Its goal is to increase ridership by at least 45 percent over the next three years. That's more than 400,000 rides - on top of the more than 900,000 fixed-route rides Mountain Line already provides each year. 

So, if it's been a while since you've hopped about a Mountain Line bus, give it another try. New bus riders are bound to find Missoula's bus service more affordable and convenient than ever, and - starting in the new year - about to become even moreso. 

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

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