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Normal city manager: Fare-free bus proposal deserves discussion

Jim Browne

It could be time to discuss one of the proposals in a 2019 Connect Transit special working group report, says Normal City Manager Pam Reece, because it's an unusual development — an organization asking for less money instead of more.

"Connect Transit has contacted us about reducing the town's support for capital," said Reece.

The Town of Normal and City of Bloomington support the Bloomington-Normal public bus system with both operating and capital funding. The town spends just under $600,000 on operations, said Reece. Part of that allows the one-fare-for-all program that ended separate rates for regular buses and Connect Mobility trips for people with disabilities.

Increased funding has phased in over the last several years.

Reece said the Connect Transit request for less local capital funding is possible because of the agency’s success in garnering state and federal grants for electric buses and pandemic relief money.

"Maybe that presents us an opportunity to talk about a fare-free system. What does that mean for Connect Transit? What does that mean for our community? We'll have to have some conversations about that," Reece said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Supporters have viewed both one-fare-for-all and a potential fare-free bus service as workforce development initiatives, designed to help employers who need workers that might have transportation challenges.

The fare-free idea was part of the "Connect To The Future" work group discussion, Reece said.

“I remember someone saying ‘moon shot.’ I think that just means what is a true vision and a concept. And one of those moon shots was a fare-free system,” she said, acknowledging such a program could only happen after the agency stabilizes its own workforce shortage.

Connect Transit has reduced service twice in recent months because it of trouble hiring enough drivers to run previous routes.

2022 assessed

Reece said 2022 was a good year for the town, citing among the positive moves advancing smart technology to engage with residents and becoming more transparent.

"One of the major things we have done is start our open-data portal. You can see all sorts of information: building inspections, permits issued, police reports, council actions, and our financial information," said Reece.

Normal made progress on capital projects too, with plans for major investments like the Uptown underpass, she said.

The town brought in more than $4 million in state and federal grant money for the underpass, the Children's Discovery Museum, and the Parks and Recreation Department. And the town ended the fiscal year with a budget surplus given to pensions and paving roads.

2023 preview

The new year will bring a lot of new capital projects in the town, said Reece, noting there are major road resurfacing efforts in the upcoming budget.

"Including the Fort Jesse and Landmark intersection and the Fort Jesse and Greenbriar traffic signals, things that will be impactful for traffic," said Reece.

The town also will start construction on the underpass project, and move forward with the Trail West mixed-use building project, also in Uptown. She expects the design and construction of the Gregory Street extension to Constitution Trail to happen, and the town also plans more pickleball courts, lighting for tennis courts, and other parks and rec work.

Construction of the underpass in the third quarter of the year will require careful coordination of work to minimize disruptions to street traffic in Uptown, rail service, and access to the Children’s Discovery Museum and Uptown Station.

“It’s going to be a challenge for everyone," said Reece. "Hopefully, the result will be well worth the inconvenience. Fifteen to 20 years ago when we were constructing all the infrastructure, all the underground water, sewer, storm water and new road system in Uptown and the circle, it was pretty inconvenient for our guests and all the businesses in Uptown. So, our best effort will be to work with them closely to communicate like crazy.”

There will be extensive times when access to a portion of the traffic circle will be cut off. The Union Pacific Railroad will provide windows of opportunity for work to happen that does not impede freight shipments, said Reece.

The town also is ready to move forward with a design-build team proposal for a new fire station at the northeast corner of the Shepard and Hershey Road intersection. That is being held up by paperwork for a $1 million state grant approved in the state budget two years ago, Reece said. Construction could begin later in 2023 and last nine to 12 months.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.