UPDATED 7 a.m. | The Bloomington City Council doesn’t like Connect Transit’s planned fare increases, Olive route elimination, and board makeup. But it won’t reject the transit system’s budget as a way to force change.
Council member Jeff Crabill floated the idea of rejecting Connect Transit’s budget, putting it on Monday night’s Committee of the Whole meeting agenda. He wanted to use that as leverage to reverse the recent controversial fare and service changes, which critics say will disproportionately impact disabled and transit-dependent riders. But on Monday seven of the eight other aldermen rejected his idea, hoping to find other solutions. Crabill’s only supporter was Jenn Carrillo.
Most were concerned about uncertainty with rejecting Connect Transit’s $13.7 million budget. That would've triggered negotiations on a new budget between the city, Town of Normal, and transit leaders. GM Isaac Thorne said that would’ve caused a “devastating” disruption to Connect Transit’s state funding and possibly led to a service shutdown by December.
“I just don’t want to wade into the unknown,” said council member Mboka Mwilambwe, who represents Ward 3 on Bloomington’s east side.
Council member Joni Painter from Ward 5 said she doesn’t support the fare increases or Olive route elimination.
“But I really don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Painter said.
Olive Route Solution?
Meanwhile, a potential compromise emerged that may soften the blow of the Olive route’s elimination.
Thorne said Monday that Connect Transit is considering a “route deviation” of the Pink route to serve the Orlando Avenue riders who are losing the Olive. The “cost-neutral” solution will be on the transit board’s June 25 agenda, he said.
Several aldermen said they want to pass a resolution at their June 24 meeting formalizing their opposition to the Olive cut and fare increases, and possibly a broader rewrite of the intergovernmental agreement between the city, Normal, and Connect Transit. That could be used to increase the size or diversity of the Connect Transit board—a key demand from critics of the recent service and fare changes.
Council member Julie Emig from Ward 4 (central and Downtown Bloomington) said big changes like the Olive elimination should be delayed until the newly formed Connect To The Future working group completes its work (expected in the fall). A broader recalibration of Connect Transit’s mission may be necessary, she said, suggesting coverage should be prioritized over ridership—instead of vice versa.
“What does that mean for policy? What does that mean for cost?” Emig asked.
Rejecting the budget could cause more problems than it solves, said council member Kim Bray from Ward 9 on Bloomington’s east side.
“We need to focus on the things we know need to be fixed,” Bray said.
Discussion in Normal
The Normal Town Council also discussed Connect Transit’s budget at its regular meeting Monday. Thorne appeared at Normal’s 7 p.m. meeting after Bloomington’s 6 p.m. session.
Mayor Chris Koos said the thought of rejecting the Connect Transit budget was never a realistic option.
“It was never a consideration, and I can’t think of anybody on this council who considers that,” he said. “It would be devastating … They would go to reserves to operate on and my understanding is they could operate for about two months and then the system would close down.”
Thorne joined Connect Transit interim chief operating officer Martin Glaze and board member Julie Hile in addressing the Town Council over the Olive elimination and rate increases.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and we wanted to address and clarify the misinformation that’s been stated throughout this process for four to five months,” said Thorne. “Give some clarity to what our funding situation is now and what it’s going to be in a few short years.”
Glaze told the council that the transit service is trying to use “proven best practices” to deliver efficient service.
“Public transit can never be everything to everyone,” said Glaze. “Unless we have an infinite amount of money, we cannot serve everyone the way they want to be served; it is impossible. We have to make decisions. Every change we make will affect a dependent transit rider.”
Responding to a question from council member Scott Preston, Glaze noted that 53% of Olive route stops are shared with other routes and that number would increase to more than 90% with the proposed Pink route deviation to West Orlando Avenue.
“Once you understand the ridership on it and the duplication with other routes, it makes sense to discontinue the Olive route,” said Koos. “Will somebody be disadvantaged by that? Yes, probably so.
“But again, we heard time and time again tonight during the discussion that Connect Transit can’t be all things to all people because they don’t have the funding to do it. They have to be efficient in what they fund and do the most for the most people.”
Connect Transit leaders say the Olive route has low ridership and that eliminating it will save about $156,000 annually. The fare increases would bring in an additional $130,000, Thorne said, but also help the transit system leverage state and federal funding.
Editor’s note: GLT Program Director Mike McCurdy is also Connect Transit’s board chair.
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