Buses may run on diesel fuel, but it takes money to fill the tank. Late cash transfers from the State of Illinois could mean Connect Transit will have to park its buses and suspend service at the end of the year.
Bloomington-Normal's bus service is due $5 million, or about a third of its budget, from the state. Connect Transit receives 65 percent of its budget from the Illinois Department of Transportation Downstate Operating Assistance Program. The federal government provides 21 percent, and 14 percent is from the fare box.
During Sound Ideas, General Manager Andrew Johnson said Connect Transit and other transit systems were under the impression the money was in the program, until recently.
"Unfortunately, we found out last week there's only about $47,000 in the public transportation fund," said Johnson. The next payment to all downstate transit providers totals $14.5 million. Johnson says there have been no transfers from the General Revenue Fund to the transit fund since June.
"It's a tough one right now. When two-thirds of your funding comes from one place, you can't cut your way out of that in terms of decreasing routes or laying people off. You'd have to slash way too much service," said Johnson.
Johnson said Connect Transit can hang on until about the end of the year, when the state has again promised another payment. Johnson is also the President of the Illinois Public Transportation Association and he says there are some rural systems that may not be able to make it past next week.
"We would roughly start January with no public transportation service," said Johnson. "We are keeping everyone very aware of what's going on. We're in the very early stages, but we plan to be very transparent with this. We want to see the whole community come together and make it known to Springfield that this is a problem that cannot continue."
Johnson says even a temporary suspension of service is an "absolute worst case" scenario.
"People will find other ways to get around and in some cases people will have no way to get around," said Johnson. He said a bond of trust with the community will have been broken if transit service stops running and people are unable to shop for food or get to work.
"You have promised them that the service will be there, and when you take it away for a few days or few weeks there are a lot people who aren't going to trust you as reliable source of transportation and find other ways to do it," said Johnson.
Johnson has contacted local state legislators about the problem and expects to talk with them more.
Connect Transit employs 150 people who could also face unemployment if the state doesn't make a payment before the end of the year, according to Johnson. He said legal action remains an option for transit systems since missing payments puts the state in violation of its own Downstate Public Transportation Act.