Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) An amendment added to a transportation bill in the U.S. House of Representatives could cut federal funding to transportation agencies that provide zero fare service, including Mountain Line in Missoula.

Mountain Line officials on Thursday expressed concern that the so-call “Perry amendment,” offered by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, could end crucial federal funding that’s vital to Missoula’s transit agency and others like it around the country.

“Mountain Line has universal free fare, and that jeopardizes any federal funding, which is extremely concerning given that a lot of funding comes from the federal government, and that’s what allows us to do a lot of the progressive and innovative things we do here in Missoula,” said Mountain Line board member Josephine Hazelton-Boyle.

Mountain Line switched to zero fare service in 2015 and has seen ridership swell in recent years. The agency also is moving to an electric fleet of busses and is building a new transit center to accommodate growth and changing technology.

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Federal funding is key to the agency’s plans moving forward and, if the Perry amendment were to pass, it would have devastating effects on a range of issues in Missoula, Hazelton-Boyle said.

“It would threaten a lot of the funding for projects we’re doing, and the ability to apply for federal grants that fund capital projects and purchase transit vehicles,” she said. “But the issue is also larger. It sort of signals disagreement with free fare policies, which is concerning. Having free fare in Missoula is foundational to providing equitable public transit.”

Alone, House bill 4820 appropriates funding for the several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, for Fiscal Year 2024.

Perry has attached a number of amendments to the bill, including a prohibition on funds for transit-oriented development and another that reduces transit infrastructure grant funding to $0. It would also eliminate funding for the Essential Air Services program, which Montana airports use to grow service.

But it’s the measure aimed at zero fare that has Mountain Line concerned. As written, the amendment “prohibits the use of funds by the Federal Transit Administration to provide funds to a recipient that has instituted a universal fare free policy for public transportation.”

Hazelton-Boyle, who also serves as an assistant professor at the University of Montana in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at the law school, said free fare has wider public benefits.

Among other things, she said, it prompts growth in ridership, meaning fewer cars on the road and cleaner air.

“Public transit is a public good, just like other public resources,” she said. “Nobody expects public libraries or public health services to be revenue generating. Free fare is a crucial mobility tool that allows anyone, regardless of their ability to pay for the service, to have basic mobility.”

Zero Fare in the crosshairs of Congress

The concept of zero fare or free bus rides isn’t reserved for left-leaning cities with a progressive agenda. Other cities on both sides of the political spectrum have instituted zero fare, including Boston and Kansas City, which was the first major city to switch to zero fare.

Olga Kreimer, communications director for Mountain Line, said the benefits of free fare have other transit agencies making the switch as well.

“A lot of cities around the country have done this. There’s a huge savings in staff time and infrastructure in collecting fares,” said Kreimer. “People think you’re leaving money on the table with free rides, but that’s not the case at all. There’s a huge cost to fare collection, so one of the benefits is more efficient service. You’re not spending that time at every bus stop waiting for people to swipe or dig out change. It reduces boarding time and keeps the system running efficiently.”

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania.

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania.
Mountain Line has benefited from federal funding over the years, including the Bus and Bus Facilities program, electrification and capital funding. The agency received a $39 million federal infrastructure grant in June to build a new maintenance and operations facility, which is needed to accommodate Mountain Line’s growth – itself a nod to the success of zero fare.

“If federal funding is threatened, then a lot of what makes us able to deliver quality service long-term, and plan to offer and expand that, is threatened. This would be a bad amendment for us, and really for all of Missoula and Montana,” Kreimer said.

She added, “Free fare isn’t some abstract concept. It makes a tangible difference in people’s lives.”

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