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Normal mayor supports zero-fare concept for transit buses

Transit bus in Uptown
Jeff Smudde

Normal Mayor Chris Koos is conditionally endorsing doing away with bus fares in the Twin Cities, but says he still wants to see a concrete proposal before fully committing.

But he likes the idea of Connect Transit going zero fare. Systems that do away with tickets to ride often cite social equity as a motivation. Koos said the policy also mobilizes the workforce and makes it easier for people to get and keep jobs.

“That tends to be a lower-income group. The ability to lift the load of the cost of transportation from them, helps them in the long term and helps the community,” said Koos, adding that's particularly important now with a workforce shortage.

It also might ease wage pressure on businesses.

“We're seeing rising costs and salaries for employees and rising costs in operations," he said. "That's something that can help take the pressure off an employer to have that cost removed from their employees.”

Connect Transit has talked about funding the no-fair change through cost cuts and savings from efficiencies, such as electric buses. The organization is working on a proposal for a 2-to–3-year pilot program to go fare free that could be ready for community discussion later this year. It's possible revenue will become more scarce over time, and Bloomington and Normal might eventually need to supplement the effort. Koos said planners just have to do the best they can to create a sustainable program.

“Just about any project you get involved in has ... the future hanging over it. What's it going to look like in 10 years? Events that derail that…well, you just can't predict those,” said Koos.

Some communities such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina, build it into their municipal budgets.

“They did it with a sales tax. You have a large university community. You've got the Research Triangle there. So, they have a pretty robust transit service, and it has worked for years,” said Koos.

The community currently has a one-fare-for-all plan, even for services such as Connect Mobility, that cost more to deliver than fixed route buses in Bloomington-Normal. Connect Transit said communities that don't charge riders for the bus see increases in ridership.

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