The Missoula County Elections Office will begin mailing ballots to registered voters this week. Of all the ballot decisions Missoula voters will make this year, whether to support Mountain Line’s mill levy increase may be the easiest.
While a property tax increase is never cause for celebration, support for this one is pouring in from across Missoula. Business owners and employees, teachers and seniors, elected officials and sustainable transportation advocates – all have a list of reasons why they would like to see public bus service enhanced.
Their lists line up with the feedback collected during an intensive public planning process undertaken last year. The community spoke, Mountain Line listened, and now it is asking for community support to make the improvements the community asked for.
Notable, the mill levy increase would allow Mountain Line to:
• Offer more van service to seniors and riders with disabilities;
• Extend service on four high-volume bus routes until nearly 10 p.m.
• Increase the frequency of buses on two high-volume routes.
Proposed by the Missoula Urban Transportation District, which oversees Mountain Line’s operations, the $1.7 million mill levy increase will cost about $19 per year per $100,000 of home value.
The increase will allow the public bus service to make important improvements without raising rates. Right now, general fare for adults is $1, but discounted and free rides are available for a variety of riders including children, seniors and adults with disabilities. Additionally, each year Mountain Line provides free rides to a number of community events, such as the Western Montana Fair, for example.
Such programs, along with other improvements over the years, have gained a steady increase in riders over the years. Missoula voters created the district more than 35 years ago, and in that time, Mountain Line has provided more than 22 million fixed route, special service or van rides. Nearly 944,000 of those rides were provided just during the most recent fiscal year.
Yet despite the steady increase, Missoula’s bus service has never once put a mill levy increase on the ballot until this year.
Clearly, it’s time. Missoula has been clamoring for better bus service, Mountain Line has been as responsive as it can possibly be under its current financial limitations.
As a result of the recent community planning process, it has already created the popular “Bolt!” line to carry riders between the downtown, University of Montana and Southgate Mall; the route provides buses every 15 minutes. Mountain Line has also worked to keep up with trends in technology, offering free Wi-Fi as well as bus tracking so riders can keep tabs on their bus in real time.
Over the years, the district has sought and won partnerships with local organizations to help cover the costs of these services. And these improvements have indeed added to the convenience and comfort of public bus service.
But the meat-and-potatoes of Mountain Line is its 12 bus routes and six specialized vans – an absolute necessity for many Missoula residents who cannot get around town any other way.
Those who do have other options still benefit from Mountain Line in myriad ways: less vehicle traffic, less congestion, less competition for parking, less wear and tear on the roads, less air pollution. In fact, Mountain Line has traditionally offered free rides on days when air quality in the Missoula Valley is poor.
Undecided voters should consider taking a ride on Mountain Line to experience firsthand this essential service. They can use the time to daydream about enhanced service – or perhaps fill out their ballot.
All ballots must be returned to the Missoula County Elections Office by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen