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Working Group Stresses Developers Include Connect Transit In Planning

A woman in a wheel chair rides off a Connect Mobility bus
McLean County Regional Planning Commission
Connect Mobility is a service that offers door-to-door transport but only to a limited area. A proposed new Universal Fee might generate additional revenue for expanded coverage.

Several draft recommendations that emerged Saturday from the Connect to the Future working group mirrored suggestions in Connect Transit's Short Range Transit Plan (SRTP) prepared by regional planners to address changing needs for the next three to five years.

Among them: focus on catering to those who rely on the service and promote more engagement to create employer-supported bus passes, done through what’s called Universal Access.

"We need to recognize if we don't tackle this, Connect Transit won't work. You have to cluster development."

The Connect to the Future working group, which met Saturday, represents a cross-section of community members, including transit and non-transit users, looking at the future sustainability of the bus system and its funding. It is working to define service, identify needed improvements, and locate funding sources to meet current and future needs.

The Connect Transit board appointed the working group in response to protests over proposed fare increases and the elimination of the Olive Route to increase frequencies of its high-ridership routes. Four subgroups reported preliminary recommendations Saturday, based on focus groups and surveys:

Land Use & Development

This subcommittee had a dozen recommendations, but many focused on involving Connect Transit early in any planning for development or redevelopment because the transportation system is chasing land use.

Subcommittee Chair Josh Barnett, who is also a Mclean County Board member, described the long walk employees or customers are forced to make from the bus dropoff in front of Lowe’s on Empire Street, east of Veterans Parkway in Bloomington. He said it's an example of the challenges many Connect Transit users face, including those with disabilities.

“When you start looking at new developments, how can you start looking at that property, that plot of land when a building is coming in," Barnett said. "Would it be better to position a store closer to the road where it has better access to transit and users can have better access to the front of that building?”

Land Use and Development subcommittee members said Connect Transit should be included in the early discussions with economic development leaders as they’re engaging potential new businesses. That should extend to site selection and negotiations, particularly with large employers who should be considering transit needs for their workforce.

The same should be true for when school districts or subdivision developers have proposals, according to the subcommittee's preliminary draft recommendations.

“There is a concern about confidentiality issues, and I think it’ll take some conversations and policy decisions,” said Barnett.

Connect to the Future Chair Judy Buchanan added, “We do have some culture shift ahead of it,” referring to when the Connect Transit board considers adopting the working group’s recommendations.

Additionally, the Land Use subcommittee, which had the most recommendations, suggested Bloomington and Normal leaders should review lighting and improve bus stops to be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. In turn, that could improve the possibility some riders with disabilities can use fixed-route transit buses instead of the costlier Connect Mobility, which provides door-to-door service for riders. 

An infographic that shows ridership of Connect TransitThis shows the demographics of McLean County. The working group says those who use the fixed routes really need the service. 50% don't have a driver's license. 64% of the non-student population riding the bus is employed, either full-time or part-time, and over half of them make less than $24,000.
Credit McLean County Regional Planning Commission

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Working group member Kimberly Klepec, who is visually impaired, has navigated transit in several other cities in Illinois and declared “Bloomington is one of the worst cities for the visually impaired.”

The subcommittee also recommended government entities offer incentives for affordable housing or workforce housing to be located along transit routes. Along with the Economic Partnerships subcommittee, it also lent support to expediting an initiative already under consideration: a downtown Bloomington transfer station. Connect Transit has included funding in its five-year capital plan and a six-month feasibility study is underway.

“The fastest-growing part of our population is the working poor," said Beth Osborne, a consultant with Smart Growth America which specializes in urban planning to improve communities. “We need to recognize if we don’t tackle this, Connect Transit won’t work. You have to cluster development.”

Ridership and Access

The Ridership subcommittee would eventually want to see a no fee service for public transit and have bus service treated as a public service, such as street maintenance. But in the meantime, it agrees with the Connect Transit’s short-term plan to focus on riders who are dependent on transit.

Around 50% of riders don’t have a driver’s license and for some English is their second language.

“Can we get devices that do automatic translations?” asked subcommittee Chair Steve Kossman.

Another working group member, Tim Bassett of Advocate BroMenn, said his organization uses devices that cost about $500. 

“Our ridership reflects the population of the city," responded working group member Marty Eckert, a Connect Transit bus driver.

Bar graph shows the race and ethnicity of those riding Connect Transit buses.
Credit McLean County Regional Planning Commission
The race and ethnicity of those riding Connect Transit buses.

This group’s preliminary recommendations also include adding route information at each bus stop, including a map to highlight the next closest stops. It suggests, without identifying specific geography, adding fixed routes to medical buildings, recreational areas, and churches not currently accessed by Connect Transit, plus considering routes to locations that provide vital services to Medicaid and Medicare recipients.

“When we add routes, we add time. We only have so much equipment. Adding routes will require expansion of the fleet or expansion of trips," said working group member Julie Hile.

Sustainable Funding

Connect Transit needs one, universal fare structure, according to the subcommittee looking at ways to increase access and affordability. While it considered a no-fee structure, Chair Deb Presley said that approach didn’t seem feasible without considering a change in governance and financing.

Beth Osborne from Smart Cities pointed out most cities with no fee also have rapid transit.

The Sustainable Funding team recommended a universal fee of $1.25 for all riders including Connect Mobility users who pay higher fees now. The proposed universal fee represents a 25 cent per-ride increase and would raise an additional $612,000 a year. It also includes raising the monthly pass to $40 for unlimited rides.

Presley said the new universal fare wouldn't penalize people who have to ride Connect Mobility because of the accessibility problems with bus stops on fixed routes. However, Kimberly Klepec said she would be willing to pay more than the $4 per ride she currently pays, pointing out she would be giving $11 or more for the same ride to Uber. She asked, “Can’t we do a sliding fee scale?”

Presley replied sliding fares based on income put up another barrier for riders to submit paperwork and the administrative costs would not be worth the additional revenue that might be brought in.

The group also recommends standardizing Universal Access, excluding the Redbird Express which services only Illinois State University.  

Current agreements are not structured to have Illinois State University and Heartland Community College students paying full fare. Some representatives on the working group committee balked at that idea, suggesting the ridership numbers from college students help Connect Transit leverage more state funding.

A man sits to the left of a woman seated in front of a computer at a meeting of the Connect to the Future Working GroupJosh Barnett and Deb Presley, who agree more employers have to be engaged in financially supporting their workforce's Connect Transit needs and the community that benefits from the services those employees provide need to realize the value of Connect Transit.
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT

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Bloomington and Normal provide the only local financial support for Connect Transit. The subcommittee suggested expanding possible contributions using Community Development Block Grant money from both entities and asking McLean County and township governments for dollars to leverage additional state and federal support.

Additionally, it recommended prioritizing capital development needs with an emphasis on what can be continually maintained, and additional dedicated funding for large-scale capital projects with possible use of state sales and motor fuel tax money for bus service operations. With additional funding would come more transparency, with regular monthly updates to the local governments and more regular assessments of community transportation needs to drive budgets.

Economic Partnerships

“We need to engage economic partners including small business,” according to Tim Bassett from Advocate BroMenn, who serves as chair of the Economic Development Partnerships subcommittee.

Preliminary suggestions from this subcommittee also included growing Universal Access programs with large employers and others who are not yet served by Connect Transit but who could benefit by having that option for their workers.

“Connect Transit hinges on easy access. We need public-private engagement,” said Bassett.

According to Hile, who is also a transportation consultant, “Economic development discussions start to generate dollars. It’s happening everywhere in the country.”

Obsorne agreed. “If we define Connect Transit only as a social service, it doesn’t speak to the value to the entire community," the consultant said.

Hile said business owners are now more open to creating sustaining funding. “Minds are changing," she said.

Next Steps

The working group's final report will likely include a structured mechanism to engage the business community. 

The subcommittees will work at redrafting their proposals based on feedback Saturday, adding ideas such as reaching out to employers to pay for their own bus stops and expanding on ideas to increase advertising revenue from bus wraps and other opportunities.

The next draft will also add more outcomes and ways to measure the impact of suggested changes, while also prioritizing which recommendations are more critical than others and which might take more time to implement.

A final report could go to the full Connect Transit board in December.

Editor's note: As a matter of disclosure, Connect Transit Board Chair Mike McCurdy is also the WGLT program director.

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.
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