Community Partners Support a Zero-Fare Service

To see the letter to the Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee TPCC click here Zero Fare Partners letter

NBC Montana Report:


Fares on Mountain Line’s fleet of buses may become free to all riders if a push to direct $50,000 in city funding to the Missoula Urban Transportation District survives the fiscal 2015 budget intact.

The city’s portion of the funding, debated Wednesday by the Budget Committee of the Whole, would be added to a community partnership that’s working to raise $400,000 to make Mountain Line free to ride.

“This is not necessarily about efficiency, and it’s not about trying to get the cheapest system we’ve got,” said council member Alex Taft. “It’s about getting a robust system that addresses our air quality.”

Voters in November approved a $1.7 million levy for the Missoula Urban Transportation District. The increased funding will allow Mountain Line to launch a new high-frequency route and extend the hours of operation on four popular weekday routes.

Michael Tree, general manager of the transportation district, said that with the improvements planned for Mountain Line and the possibility of a fare-free system taking effect, ridership could increase by 45 percent in three years.

“You’ll know quickly whether you’re on track with that goal,” said Tree. “The goal is to reach 45 percent and to work with state and federal governments in putting in place sustainable funding so the zero fare continues.”

To help raise the $400,000 needed to implement the three-year demonstration project, a group of community partners has stepped forward to cover a sizeable portion of the funding, including the University of Montana, which is contributing roughly $150,000.

Other partners, including St. Patrick Hospital, Community Medical Center, Missoula Aging Services, Southgate Mall and Homeword Inc., have together fronted an additional $100,000.

“This is a growing partnership,” said Martin Blair, the consortium’s representative. “At the end of three years’ time, we could see around 400,000 new riders on Mountain Line.”

Members of the committee raised no objections in arguing the benefits of a fare-free system – benefits they say will reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. Doing away with the fare boxes would also improve the system’s efficiency, they were told.

Mayor John Engen, who attended the committee meeting, lobbied to direct the $50,000 toward Mountain Line. Engen said the community lowered one bus system barrier by passing the $1.7 million levy, and Mountain Line lowered another barrier by establishing fixed route times.

“This really is the final barrier this community has yet to overcome – the hassle of coming up with the money, that hassle that happens at the fare box,” Engen said. “In terms of return on investment, it has become clear to me that that return is substantial and this puts our system on par with any system of any community our size in the United States.”

Those behind the push, including Blair, cited the benefits seen in other communities that have done away with a charge system and made their buses free to riders. Among them, he named Corvallis, Oregon, a university town similar in size to Missoula.

Council member Jon Wilkins, however, asked Tree and Blair how the fare-free system would be sustained after the demonstration project comes to an end in three years.

Tree replied by saying “success breeds success.”

“Many of the 12 partners lining up for this program I think will be there at the end of year three and want to participate moving forward,” he said. “I couldn’t put my finger exactly on how it will be sustained, but I’m confident that as we meet the goals, those things will fall into place.”