Almost 11 months ago to the day, Heidi Zimmerman spoke before the Connect Transit board of trustees, making a “desperate plea” that the board not increase rates for Connect Mobility riders.
Again addressing Connect Transit board members Friday afternoon, the longtime disability services provider found herself in agreement with the board as she gave her support for the Connect to the Future working group’s final recommendations.
“As an advocate for people with disabilities, I can assure you that the recommendation to charge Connect Mobility riders the exact same amount as people who are able to use the fixed route is the only acceptable action at this point,” she said.
Connect Transit General Manager Isaac Thorne said the agency’s staff recommends that the board approve the working group’s recommendations when they meet at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at Uptown Station.
Both Trustees Mike McCurdy and Monica Bullington said they support the recommendations, although Bullington will be absent and unable to vote at the Tuesday meeting. Trustees John Bowman and Ryan Whitehouse were not present Friday, but McCurdy said he understands Whitehouse intends to support the recommendations.
Bullington said she’s glad for the conversations that have taken place over the last year. With the recommendations finalized and the intent to support them, now the board needs to focus on their financial feasibility, she said.
“While we’re all on the same page with all of this being great ideas, we have to be able to afford it, we have to put the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington on the spot to help pay for it,” agreed McCurdy.
Thorne reviewed the budget for the work group’s recommendations, explaining that instituting the One Rate for All fare structure would also produce a net gain of about $29,000 in revenue for the agency, he said.
Expanding Connect Mobility service would increase costs by an estimated $166,000, he said, but money from the Illinois Department of Transportation Downstate Operating Assistance Grant would cover $107,900 of the expense.
In all, it would cost the agency nearly $29,000 to implement the recommendations in full.
Thorne explained the additional $500,000 annual combined investment from the town and the city would be used to address the agency’s budget deficit and support the working group recommendations.
If the board approves the recommendations Tuesday, Connect Transit will seek approval from the Normal and Bloomington city councils. Assuming council approval, the agency will still need to initiate a public hearing process, putting the estimated implementation of the recommendations around June or July, Thorne said.
McCurdy asked whether it was too late in Connect Transit’s and the city’s and town’s budget cycles to achieve the recommended additional investments in the agency.
Thorne said while Connect Transit typically votes on a budget at the end of March in order to submit it to IDOT by April 1, staff have reached out to IDOT to confirm Connect Transit can submit its budget by the end of April and still receive IDOT funding on time.
Support from Disability Advocates
Others joined Heidi Zimmerman in expressing their support for the working group recommendations.
Citizens to Ensure Fair Transit member Aleda Diggins commended the group on proposing to expand Connect Mobility service to the town and city limits, as well as creating a more equitable fare structure for the entire system.
“It exceeds what I expected from the working group,” she said.
Rebecca Brennan spoke as a representative for MarcFirst’s self-advocacy group, Changes to Independence All Together. Brennan said the group also supports charging Connect Mobility and fixed route riders the same fare.
“It’s very hard for them to ride our current fixed routes, just due to accessibility,” she said.
The recommendations call for Connect Transit to complete its Better Bus Stop Campaign -- a plan to bring all of its stops into compliance with the American Disabilities Act -- by 2024.
Trustee Julie Hile said Connect Transit would be one of the first transit systems in the country, if not the first, to do so once the goal is met.
Other recommendations include:
- Adding representatives of local businesses, Heartland Community College, Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University to the current Citizens Advisory Committee
- Implementing a yearlong, zero-fare pilot program on the Green Route, during which Connect Transit staff would collect ridership data to determine the program’s ability to attract new riders
- Encouraging transit-supportive development
- Advocating for a downtown transportation center
- Regularly reviewing the intergovernmental agreements between Connect Transit and local municipalities
Editor's note: Mike McCurdy is also WGLT's program director.