Mountain Line has been working for years toward the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award.

It finally happened.

Shanti Johnson, communications specialist at Mountain Line, speaks with METRO about the agency’s reaction to the win, how it improves ridership, and more.

Reaction to the Win

Mountain Line was named the top public transit agency in the U.S. and Canada in its size, earning the 2021 American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award, four million or fewer trips.

According to Johnson, Mountain Line CEO and GM Corey Aldridge had a vision to win the APTA Outstanding Public Transportation System of the Year award for years. When it finally came to fruition, Aldridge was thrilled.

“The award means different things to different people on our team,” Johnson says. “For each department, I think it brought a deep level of satisfaction and gratitude for the recognition. We all work extremely hard to be the best agency we can be; having national recognition of our commitment to outstanding service meant a lot to each of us.”

Johnson was in the room next door when Aldridge got the call notifying him Mountain Line had won and it was the most excited and animated she has ever seen him to date.

There has been a lot of work in the past leading up to the 2021 APTA award.

Mountain Line was previously awarded the Arts Missoula Star Award from the City of Missoula Public Arts Committee for its support of local artists during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mountain Line hosted a five‐week livestream concert series last summer, partnering with local businesses to pay area musicians and put on a free streaming concert series.

The concert engaged 13 local businesses, benefited 15 local musicians, and had over 7,500 views on Facebook.

“Our team is comprised of individuals who truly want to serve our community,” Johnson says. “That shines through in the quality of service we provide — both behind the wheel and behind the scenes. We also have fantastic leadership provided by our board of directors. We are fortunate to have a board that supports and values public transportation in our community. With the thoughtful direction of our board, our team has been able to make great strides toward sustainability, equity, and accessibility along our system.”

Mountain Line also invested in a public art project at its Downtown Transfer Center with unused 2020 events funding. The agency worked closely with the city's public art committee to solicit proposals and select a young indigenous artist to visually represent our agency's commitments to sustainability and a livable community through her use of traditional and unique symbolism.

The installation was completed in July 2021.


Zero-Emissions Program

Mountain Line has embarked on a zero-emissions journey and is now the number one emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Johnson.

The journey started in the summer of 2019, funded by a Low‐or‐No Emissions grant.

“We have successfully competed for and won two additional Lo‐No grants, plus state grant funding from the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust Settlement. Buses purchased under these grants will bring our fixed‐route fleet to 57% electric by 2023,” Johnson says.

Johnson adds the agency’s maintenance team had to go through specialized safety training focused on working with high‐voltage vehicles. Mountain Line also had to become quasi electricians, adapting to transformers being on site, melting motherboards, and improperly‐wired bus technology.

“We know that taking public transportation instead of driving solo can significantly reduce a person’s carbon footprint,” Johnson says. “While already part of the solution, we wanted to amplify the positive benefits of public transportation even more by committing to a zero‐tailpipe‐emissions fleet by 2035. This commitment was a joint venture between our staff and board of directors to move Missoula forward sustainably.”

Bus Stop Improvement Project

Currently, Mountain Line is in the middle of the largest project they have ever undertaken, its Bus Stop Improvement Project (BSIP).

The project is aimed at improving safety, increasing accessibility, and maximizing service efficiency.

Mountain Line received a Federal Transit Administration grant to implement the project and formalized its 2018 Strategic Plan.

The BSIP will add or upgrade 18 bus stop shelters; add 68 accessible boarding and alighting areas; add or upgrade seating at 51 stops; reduce the total number of stops from 452 to 352; and alter two routes to improve travel time and reliability.

“The BSIP will greatly expand the accessibility of our system; it's expected to be completed next year,” Johnson says.

This project also involves upgrading every bus stop sign to a new tactile, hexagonal‐shaped pole to distinguish it by feel from other signposts.


Service and Ridership

Mountain Line has gone through multiple routes to improve its ridership.

The agency updated its Passenger Code of Conduct to include more positive and inclusive language related to expected passenger behavior and revamped its Route Map & Schedule in 2019 to make it easier to read.

In 2020, Mountain Line launched a new website with the goal of making information easier to find.

“Mountain Line's policy is that every customer complaint is investigated, and we contact each customer to let them know the outcome of the investigation (if they provided contact information),” Johnson says. “We equipped 100% of our fleet with onboard audio and video recording capabilities. With this new system, responding to customer complaints with real‐time information creates a more efficient, fair response for both riders and employees.”

The agency continues to emphasize ridership by providing a bus and trolley service to the Missoula farmers markets and a local summer‐long event series called Out to Lunch.

During the shutdown, Mountain Line created community Wi‐Fi hotspots using its electric buses to improve access to the internet for students and to those needing to access unemployment and other services.

“We are constantly asking ourselves how we can improve and strive to implement real‐time changes whenever we can — whether that’s upgrading our website, testing out new mobile apps, debuting upgraded rider alert templates, or adding more safety training for our team,” Johnson says.

Diversity and Inclusion

Johnson also speaks on diversity and inclusion in Mountain Line.

“For many years, our leadership has been intentionally committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace,” Johnson says. “It wasn’t until last year, though, that we formalized those commitments by adopting an official district‐wide Diversity & Inclusion policy.”

Since adopting its Diversity and Inclusion policy in 2020, Mountain Line has formed a Diversity & Inclusion Committee and has drafted a five‐year strategic plan for our district. The first two years (2020‐2021) are said to be focused on setting up the foundation for the committee and offering internal training to ensure success moving forward.