Mountain Line’s Zero-fare bus program couldn’t have come at a better time for local resident Dawn Furtado. Last December her car died and then to make matters worse, the business she worked for, within walking distance of her home, closed its doors just a few days later.
“Being temporarily unemployed and carless, a zero-fare bus was just what I needed,” Furtado said. “Now I have a new car and a new job, and I can honestly say the bus helped me achieve that. This is a great service for people who may be in need, but also for folks who just want to help the environment and traffic problems.”
Furtado isn’t alone in her praise for the three-year Zero-fare demonstration project. Today, Missoula’s 14 Zero-fare community partners received a public thank-you card with notes from more than 50 riders, acknowledging the partners’ vision for a local zero-fare public transportation system.
Transit commuters, local leaders and Mountain Line’s community partners joined Mayor John Engen to celebrate a record-breaking first year for the program, which grew bus ridership by 38 percent in its first 12 months. Engen unveiled a new plaque recognizing the partners’ contribution to the community, and he welcomed Missoula’s newest Zero-fare partners, Destination Missoula and the Missoula Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).
Messages from riders themselves, collected online on Mountain Line’s web site over the past several weeks, included thank-you notes and personal stories like Furtado’s.
“We know that increased bus ridership benefits our entire community by reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality, but when we hear these personal stories of how zero-fare is helping people move about town, it reminds us that our main purpose is to build a quality community that we can all be proud of,” Engen told the crowd.
The new Zero-fare partner plaque will be housed in the Downtown Transfer Center once renovations are completed later this winter. New partners Destination Missoula and TBID believe joining Mountain Line’s growing list of partners was an easy decision in line with their mission.
“Supporting our community is as important to our organization as welcoming visitors. Zero-fare is a great amenity that we can market to our visitors. It is an amenity that sets us apart from other communities in Montana and across the nation,” said Destination Missoula and TBID Executive Director Barbara Neilan.
Mountain Line’s three-year Zero-fare demonstration project began January 5, 2015, and the result has been 12 straight months of record transit ridership. Mountain Line provided more than 1 million annual rides for the first time ever – 1.2 million trips in 2015. September, October, November and December broke records over all previous years, breaking 100,000 rides in every month since August. October also set a new all-time one-month bus ridership record with 118,447 rides, breaking the previous record set just this past April.
“This increase is largely due to the Zero-fare program,” said Corey Aldridge, Mountain Line general manager. “January 2016 is on track to break another record.”
“The numbers are great, but they only tell part of the story. Behind them are students getting to school, employees getting to work, and seniors and people with disabilities staying active and independent. It’s a group of school kids going on a short field trip or an ill person getting to an important doctor’s appointment,” Aldridge said “We really wanted our partners to know the difference they’re making in our community.”
For Furtado and the other riders in attendance, the feeling is mutual.
“I’m just happy to get a chance to say thank you for helping our community with this service.” she said. “It made a difference for me, and I’m it’s the same for hundreds if not thousands of other people.”
Mountain Line’s original Zero-fare partners include the University of Montana, Associated Students of the University of Montana, City of Missoula, County of Missoula, the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization, St. Patrick Hospital, Community Medical Center, Missoula County Public Schools, Missoula Aging Services, Missoula Downtown Association, Missoula Parking Commission, the Missoulian, Southgate Mall, Homeword, Inc., and newest member Destination Missoula.