The University of Montana in recent weeks has stressed ease of transportation as a key factor in its push to construct a new Missoula College facility. But the talking point revived another contentious issue for some of UM's neighbors, specifically complaints over the state of the university's student-owned-and-operated bus fleet.
The topic came up in mid-April during a meeting of the newly established Quality of Life Advisory Committee, when a University District resident voiced complaints about the university's buses not meeting Environmental Protection Agency standards for noise and pollution emissions. The neighbor asked whether ASUM Transportation might merge with Missoula's Mountain Line bus system to alleviate the financial burden of replacing aging buses in a system primarily funded through student fees.
Topher Williams, chair of ASUM Transportation, confirms that the suggestion has come up often in conversations with the public. Michael Tree, general manager for the Missoula Urban Transportation District, says both ASUM and Mountain Line are actively working to improve service in the university area.
"I understand the inconvenience of having buses going through so often, and we share in those concerns," Williams says. "Our goal is to be improving the quality of life in the neighborhood, not diminishing it."
But as to specific doubts over ASUM's buses meeting EPA standards, ASUM Transportation Director Nancy Wilson assures that the vehicles have been tested and meet standards for the years they were manufactured, as required by the EPA. ASUM is actively working to replace five dated buses. They were purchased between 2010 and 2012, Wilson says, to maintain compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. She adds that demand for bus service overall has skyrocketed since the program began, from 3,600 riders in 1999 to nearly 450,000 riders last year.
"They definitely are reducing emissions by reducing the number of vehicles around and through campus," Wilson says. "But they are older buses, we will admit that. They are older buses and we're working to replace them."
ASUM Transportation secured a $145,000 grant from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality this year, and the university is putting up a match of $229,000. The new bus should arrive this fall, Wilson says, and the department plans to apply for another DEQ grant next year.
"There are some folks who haven't been as happy with our responses, and I understand," Williams says. "Bureaucracies sometimes don't move as fast as we'd like."