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Connect Transit Ridership Slow To Rebound As Fares Return

Connect Transit ridership last month is down 25% compared to 2019.
Eric Stock
Connect Transit ridership last month is down 25% compared to 2019.

Public transportation ridership hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels in Bloomington-Normal as the economy reopens.

Connect Transit restored fares on June 1 after passengers rode for free for the previous 15 months to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The agency also raised the fare for fixed routes from $1 to 1.25.

Ryan Whitehouse seated
Eric Stock
Ryan Whitehouse

Connect Transit's passenger total for June was nearly the same as June 2020 at close to 110,000, but it's down 25% from June 2019, when about 147,000 passengers rode the bus.

Board of trustees Chair Ryan Whitehouse said it could take time to fully rebound.

“Our numbers are coming back, but we have some room to go,” Whitehouse said on WGLT's Sound Ideas. “I’m confident we will get there.”

Ridership on Connect Transit's on-demand service, Connect Mobility, is up 80% over last year, but still short of pre-pandemic levels.

Pandemic finances

Whitehouse said the transportation agency expects to emerge from the pandemic on strong financial ground.

Connect Transit expects to get $15 million in COVID relief through the federal CARES Act and American Rescue Plan. That would cover the cost of free rides and health and safety enhancements over the next several years, including additional cleaning and maintenance staff and plexiglass behind the driver's seat on each bus.

“Financially, we are in one of the best spots we have ever been, so there will be no long-lasting effects financially in the short term,” said Whitehouse, who cautioned it's not clear what the long-term trends could emerge in public transportation ridership.

Transfer center

Some neighbors say they are worried about noise and light pollution that a bus transfer center in downtown Bloomington could bring. Connect Transit plans to study the environmental impacts of the proposed $20 millionproject at the former Pantagraph site.

Whitehouse said he understands those concerns are valid.

“We are going to try to mitigate that as much as possible, sound and noise, but I hope that we could be a good partner, a good neighbor to the community and the benefits will outweigh the possible negative side effects that some of the neighbors might see,” Whitehouse said.

He said the study could take up to two years, adding the transfer center opening would be ready by 2023 at the earliest, since Connect Transit still needs to buy the property. He said the full scope of renovations still hasn’t been determined.

‘Better Bus Stops’

Connect Transit plans accessibility improvements at 51 of its bus stops in Bloomington this summer.

Whitehouse said it's part of the transit agency's Better Bus Stops for Bloomington-Normal campaign.

“When we pull this off in 2024, we will be the only transit system in the United States of America that has 100% ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-complaint bus stops, a huge accomplishment,” he said.

Whitehouse noted the campaign started in 2018. Connect Transit has nearly 440 bus stops in Bloomington-Normal. The Connect Transit website will include an interactive map to show progress on bus stop construction.

GM search

Whitehouse said Connect Transit hopes to hire a new director in August. He said a hiring consultant helped the transit agency work through more than 10 applicants for the post, adding the transit board is down to two finalists.

Isaac Thorne resigned as general manager last Augustto take a transit job in Knoxville, Tenn.

Former Normal City Manager Mark Peterson has been serving as interim GM.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.