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Connect Transit Working Group Sets Tone For Discussions To Come

Chris Zimmerman speaks to the group
Breanna Grow
Smart Growth America Vice President of Economic Development Chris Zimmerman led his first meeting as facilitator of the Connect to the Future working group Saturday at Uptown Station.

Members of the Connect to the Future working group got acquainted with the group’s new facilitator Saturday morning at Uptown Station. It was their second meeting since Connect Transit board members announced the group’s creation in April to develop recommendations for the future of the agency’s service and funding.

Chris Zimmerman is the vice president of economic development for Smart Growth America, the company Connect Transit’s board hired to facilitate working group meetings last month. 

Zimmerman said as an economist and former elected official in Virginia’s Arlington County, he understands firsthand the kinds of decisions involved in addressing transit concerns. 

“We were heavily involved in transit,” he said. “We made a lot of decisions about spending. We expanded transit service, and we had to come up with the plan to do that.”

The meeting agenda included an hour to review the working group’s mission, lay ground rules and review the history of public transit. But after about 45 minutes of presentation from Zimmerman, working group member Steven Kossman was ready to move on.

“At the risk of offending ... I don’t want a history lesson of how cities developed,” he said. “We want to talk about transit. We need to talk about, what are our issues here, what are the various agendas that have come to bear on us, and what is our task.”

Working group member and Connect Transit Board member Julie Hile said while she understood the point of helping the group develop a shared history, she sees an advantage in providing such material to the group ahead of time.

“So that our discussion can be less being read to and more that we come to the meeting having done our work and we can talk about these things by exception and in the context of our particular work,” she said.

The group dedicated the remaining time Saturday to developing an extensive list of topics to discuss at future meetings.

Bloomington City Council members Jeff Crabill and Donna Boelen were among several local elected officials in attendance Saturday. Boelen said she was glad to see the members redirect the meeting.

“I was concerned that there was going to be just lecture (by the facilitator)," she said.

“I was very heartened by the fact that everyone in the working group appeared engaged, a lot of them had already read a lot of materials, and they weren't afraid to share their opinions,” Crabill echoed. “So ultimately I think we’ve got the right people in place.”

In fact, the group identified such a range of future topics—affordability, corporate funding, capital investments, safety and youth and senior riders, to name a few—some members feared they may not meet the Oct. 19 deadline to compile draft recommendations.

“A review of the draft recommendations after just two meetings? That scares the hell out of me,” Kossman said. “I can’t imagine us being at that point with the way we’re proceeding,”

Working group member Deb Presley suggested the group break out into committees. Zimmerman said he and SGA staff would develop between three and five committees to present to the working group at its next meeting Aug. 17.

Working group member Tim Bassett also asked that Hile and Connect Transit Board Chair Judy Buchanan help keep the group on task at future meetings. “There’s a number of things we can try to do, but within the scope of this group we may not be able to do everything that we’ve talked about, today or at future meetings,” he said.

Hile said the group could certainly set out parameters for what does and does not fall within its charge. “None of us wants to bloat the project anymore,” she said. “We’re hearing some pretty serious expectations from the community already.”

Zimmerman closed the meeting by assigning some homework for the group to complete by before they return: “Try something that you haven’t done.” So for those who don’t ride the bus, “figure out how you would,” and for those who already do, ride during off-peak hours to the grocery store or make a weekend trip to the doctor’s office. 

Zimmerman asked the group to report back on their experience. “What was the walk to the stop like? What was the wait like? How long did it take to go on the trip?”

He also asked the group to make an effort to talk to other riders about their experience to relay to the group.

Hile and Zimmerman were not available for comment immediately following the meeting. Tentative topics of discussion at the Aug. 17 meeting include Connect Transit finances and ideas to fund the system.

Editor's note: WGLT program director Mike McCurdy is chair of Connect Transit's board.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.