Guest Blog by John Eric Schleicher
The few Missoulians who walked into the door of the Missoula Fairgrounds Arts Building on a November Thursday night were greeted with friendly smiles and a table full of Mountain Line swag. Sterile light reflected off eight enlarged poster boards, depicting land use maps, bus ridership data, and alternative visions for Missoula bus riders. Though the multicolored maps and data would make any transportation wonk grin, Thursday’s intended audience was citizens with diverse backgrounds and transportation needs.
Mountain Line is seeking citizen input as the transportation agency updates its latest Strategic Plan. As part of its efforts, Mountain Line hosted four open houses in different neighborhoods throughout Missoula so citizens could review and offer feedback to two different alternative service enhancements. Should Mountain Line’s future focus be to increase bus frequency or should it be to expand service to Sundays, holidays, and later on weekday nights? Currently, Mountain Line does not offer Sunday service, provides a reduced Saturday service, and turns in for the night fairly early on weeknights. On the weekdays, Mountain Line has two bus routes that frequent each stop every fifteen minutes. The frequency for the other ten routes that snake their way through Missoula range from thirty to sixty minutes. On Saturday, all available routes decrease to sixty-minute frequency.
Mountain Line’s “Seven Days and Seven Nights” service expansion would add two more hours of operations on weekday evenings, four to six more hours on Saturday, and eight hours on Sunday. Mountain Line’s “Shorter Wait” service expansion would focus investment in creating high weekday and Saturday bus frequency.
In a perfect mass transportation world, both options would be on the citizen table. But Vince Caristo, Mountain Line’s Project Management Specialist, says, “We’re an agency with a fixed budget so we have to make hard choices.”
The hard choices will have a large impact on the many Mountain Line riders. Caristo says over 1.5 million riders rode the blue and green buses in 2016. While transit riding is declining in most American cities, Missoula is an outlier. In the previous three years, Mountain Line has seen a 70% increase in their ridership.
Mountain Line’s success moving more Missoulians from single occupant vehicles to buses is critical in shrinking the city’s carbon footprint. Transportation needs spew more than one third of Missoula’s total emission output, making sustainable transportation a high priority in Climate Smart Missoula’s triage to dull climate change’s impact.
Amy Cilimburg, Climate Smart Missoula’s Executive Director, says, “We need to develop our community to be climate friendly and climate resilient. Mountain Line is a tremendous success story, but we can strengthen it. Each option has trickle down ramifications so people don’t have to rely on cars.”
Mountain Line’s limited weekend service forced, Mallary Langen, a Pre-Nursing student enrolled at the University of Montana, to take a car this past Thanksgiving weekend when she had hoped to take the bus. She laments how she had to spend twenty dollars on an Uber ride from the airport. “I had no idea the bus didn’t go to the airport on the weekends,” Langen says. “I assumed it did since I rode the bus to the airport for my outgoing flight.”
Langen wishes for the transit agency to invest more in weekend and weeknight service. She’s a regular Mountain Line rider, who depends on the bus to get to campus to avoid the high parking costs.
Miles Kinney, an employee at Consumer Direct Care Network Montana, would like the investment to focus on frequency. He relies on the “infrequent service” of route eleven to get to work. In order to avoid long waits, he plans his days around the bus schedule and says, “it would be great if the bus was more available.”
“Then again,” he adds. “Sunday service would also be great. I save all my errands for the weekend.”
Miles Kinney, Mallary Langen, and you still have the opportunity to let Mountain Line know how to expand their service. The four open houses have concluded, but the agency has an online survey open where you can state your preference. The survey will be open through November 30th and can be found at HERE. Though the survey will only take a few minutes to complete, your time will be well spent towards moving Missoula closer towards a sustainable transportation future.
John Eric Schleicher is a freelance writer based here in Missoula. When not typing on the computer, you can find him playing on the abundant trails in and around Missoula. Visit his website at montanafreelancewriter.com.