A Bloomington City Council member said Monday he wants to reject Connect Transit’s budget in hopes of saving the Olive route and avoiding fare increases—a move that the transit system’s general manager says could add to the financial pressures that prompted those moves in the first place.
Council member Jeff Crabill wants to discuss rejecting Connect Transit’s $13.7 million budget at the council’s June 17 Committee of the Whole meeting. If there’s enough support from other council members, the issue could be put to a vote June 24, Crabill said. If the budget is rejected, Connect Transit would not have a budget for fiscal year 2020 (which begins July 1) and it would be required to work with the Town of Normal and City of Bloomington on a new one.
Crabill said his goal is to reverse planned fare increases and the elimination of the Olive route. He said he’d like the Bloomington City Council to consider increasing the city’s annual contribution to Connect Transit—currently $610,000 for operations, and $627,375 for capital expenses. (The Town of Normal contributes $878,400 total for operations and capital.)
“There could be other funding sources, including from the city and town, that would negate the reason for the fare changes and the (elimination) of the Olive,” Crabill told GLT. “If we don’t do that now, if those changes go into effect, and (later) we’re able to get additional funding, it’s going to be much harder to backtrack on those changes. It’ll be much harder to implement the Olive route again after it’s been out of existence, or to decrease fares.”
Crabill said he doesn’t want to micromanage the day-to-day operations of Connect Transit. But the Olive and fare issues are “major changes” that fall under the city’s oversight role.
“I don’t consider it micromanaging it at all,” Crabill said. “I consider it the city doing its due diligence (and) fiduciary oversight.”
If Connect Transit is without a budget, that would delay its Downstate Operating Assistance Program (DOAP) application to the state, said Connect Transit General Manager Isaac Thorne. The DOAP application will be delayed with the possibility that Connect Transit will not get reimbursed until early 2020, he said. Connect Transit will be forced to use reserve funding until the Illinois Department of Transportation can approve the DOAP application and reimburse it for operating expenses, he said.
Connect Transit was put into a similar situation in 2016 when the state did not have a budget, Thorne said. It nearly suspended service in December 2016 as a result.
“With the lack of IDOT funding that reimburses Connect Transit (for) 65% of operating expenses, Connect Transit will suspend all capital improvements that require local funds such as the Better Bus Stop campaign,” Thorne said. “We will attempt to provide service for as long as possible using reserve funds. Once reserve funds are exhausted Connect will suspend service.”
At least one Normal Town Council member—Karyn Smith—has also floated the idea of rejecting Connect Transit’s budget over opposition to the Olive cut and fare changes. Other critics of the changes—organized as Citizens To Ensure Fair Transit, or CEFT—are lobbying for them to be reversed and for new Connect Transit board appointees.
Connect Transit leaders say the Olive route has low ridership and that eliminating it will save about $156,000 annually. At a recent Normal Town Council meeting, City Manager Pam Reece said the route cut was a data-driven decision. In a six-month period from fall 2018 to spring 2019, Connect Transit found the Olive route averaged zero daily riders at 12 of its 41 stops, she said. Another 15 stops averaged less than two daily riders. And each of the three stops averaging a significant number of riders are all covered by other routes, Reece said.
Editor’s note: GLT Program Director Mike McCurdy is chair of the Connect Transit board.
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.