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Connect Transit gives back capital money to municipalities and could go fare-free

David Braun is the General Manager of Connect Transit
Charlie Schlenker
David Braun is general manager of Connect Transit.

The head of Bloomington-Normal's bus system said his organization will forgo nearly $1.4 million in funding from the City of Bloomington and Town of Normal next budget year. Those are dollars for capital projects that David Braun said Connect Transit doesn't need right now.

The City of Bloomington gives Connect Transit $830,000 a year for capital spending, while the Town of Normal contributes $550,000.

"Those are dollars that can then be spent on other capital projects that they have. I know that both have significant capital needs," Braun said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Braun said Connect Transit has been successful in securing state and federal capital grants and can do without the municipal money for now. Some of that grant money is being used to buy electric buses. By the end of 2024, more than half the Connect Transit fleet will be electric, Brown said. Other money comes from federal pandemic relief instead of the annual federal money that comes out of a formula based on ridership.

"The grant funds we received will be used instead of the formula funds that we can also use for operations. So we will basically be funding the operation with more federal than local funds," said Braun.

Braun said, though, Connect Transit might like the money back again for a new transfer station. A study is currently under way on the impact — environmental, historical, and other factors — that a transfer center would have on the neighborhood if it is placed on the site of the current Market Street parking deck in downtown Bloomington.

That study is expected to show later this year whether the parking deck location is viable. A transfer center itself is years away, following lengthy design and construction periods.

"As many people know, we're working with the city right now to determine a transfer center. That will likely be a partnership. So, maybe they could put those dollars towards that," said Braun.

Fare-Free test program

It's possible all residents of Bloomington-Normal could soon ride buses for free. That's true now for Illinois State University students, though the university pays through an annual contract for the service. Braun thinks ending fares for all riders is affordable, and a pilot program of 2-3 years could begin later this year.

He said "$1.3 million would be the loss in revenue. That's about 7% of our entire budget. Realistically, I think we can manage about 7%. We can find other ways to save money."

Braun said lower maintenance and fuel costs as Connect Transit converts to electric buses will help pay for the zero-fare program, adding the end of costs for fare box equipment also is a savings.

"The fare box is a very software-driven technical device on board the bus. It will jam or something will happen where that bus is out of service of for a period of time until maintenance can clear it," said Braun.

The end of fare boxes and tickets also would increase reliability and on-time performance of the system, said Braun.

For lengthy periods during the height of the pandemic Connect Transit went fare free. That's not a true test of the concept, however, because overall ridership was down 40% in that period. Ridership is up 17% from last year, closing 2022 with 1.3 million people. That's still down from a pre-pandemic peak of more 2 million, Braun said. And the change would increase ridership that would attract more dollars for the system, through the federal formula.

Braun said charging riders nothing helps the business community get workers, but there are other reasons to start the service.

"Many systems are doing it on the basis of equity. The city and the town has an infrastructure. That includes the roads and that includes transit. People who use the roads don't pay any additional to use those roads, however people who use transit do need to pay a fare," said Braun.

Other cities that have gone zero-fare, Braun said, have seen a 70% increase in riders — Boston and Kansas City for instance. Braun cautioned that growth is mixed with increases caused by pandemic recovery.

And Braun said a pilot program would likely not begin until Connect Transit staffing levels come up. The system has had to reduce frequency of service and some daily and weekend route coverage because it does not have enough drivers. Braun said the organization has raised pay, created signing bonuses, and worked closely with Heartland Community College's Commercial Drivers' License program to boost the number of drivers.

"Our next class has 12 operators. We're 23 operators down. We need at least two or three classes to get back to where we are and start reinstalling service," said Braun.

He said those measures to attract new drivers, even inexperienced ones, are more robust than many transit systems have been able to offer.


One new program is not in doubt. The system will soon roll out an effort designed to make it easier to ride. Braun said the long-planned micro-transit offering is on schedule for a spring start.

"What we're hoping to do is to provide access to neighborhoods that can't be served by a fixed route bus, a larger bus. Somebody could order it on their phone. It would come to a convenient corner and pick them up. And then it would take them to a fixed route stop," said Braun.

He said the service will operate 12 hours a day for residents within two zones — one in Normal and one in Bloomington. Users also be can dropped at their destination if it's within the zone.

"If you look at some of our neighborhoods, they have one access point to a neighborhood that might be a mile square. And realistically if you live deep into that neighborhood, it's very hard to get to that access point," said Braun.

Consultants are drawing the zone maps now based on a lack of fixed-route access. He said micro-transit programs tend to increase overall ridership in systems that have them.

"There are so many use cases for micro-transit. It's the child that needs to stay later at school and then needs to go home or needs to attend practice and their parents can't take them. It's the senior that is at work and relying on their families to get where they need to go that suddenly has access to a bus service," said Braun.

Braun said micro-transit can create a better feeling about public transit in general because people feel in control of their own access. The micro-transit program will charge the same fare as other transit services, so it will be cheaper than Uber or Lyft. But it's also a shared ride system.

Connect Transit hasn't branded the new offering yet, but Braun said it will be named something a little flashier than micro-transit.

The service will use eight-passenger vans, with a low floor to accommodate seniors and those with disabilities. They'll be gasoline powered at first, but electric by early next year.

He said younger drivers who do not yet have a commercial driver’s license can pilot the vehicles. Braun expressed hope the agency can convert those drivers into fixed-route drivers later, in part to address the driver shortage.

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