Members of the Connect Transit Board of Trustees got another earful from the public Tuesday over their recent fare increases and route cut, as the panel named a new group that will seeks ways to better serve its ridership.
The board announced at the monthly meeting at the Bloomington Police Department headquarters that it has selected trustee Judy Buchanan to chair the working group, while board member Julie Hile will also serve on the panel.
The Connect Transit board will appoint 12 to 15 members who are expected to meet monthly from May to October to seek solutions to improve service and maintain financial sustainability.
Buchanan said while the group’s scope is broad, it will be looking to come up with specific recommendations.
“Once we identify what we want, what we need, what we value, what’s it going to cost and can we afford it?” she said.
Buchanan added the working group plans to look to the future, rather than revisit the recent fare hikes and elimination of the Olive Route.
Seven members of the public addressed the board on Tuesday asking it to reconsider the fare increases and the service cuts.
Cara McMorris, associate pastor of Hope United Methodist Church in Bloomington, said some residents have chosen where to live based on their access to public transportation, only to have that service taken away.
“The bus is not an option,” McMorris declared. “It is not an option for people who might choose to take it sometimes, but it is absolutely a lifeline for people.
“All of the sudden we don’t have this wonderful asset, it’s accessible only to those who can afford it and only those who have the power and voice to access it.”
The board has said the Olive route saw low ridership and eliminating it would enable it to increase frequencies of its high-ridership routes, including its red and lime routes.
"More frequent service on the lime, that goes through Bloomington's west side, through a food desert to a grocery store," Board chairman Mike McCurdy said. "I can't imagine how you can increase service and convenience more people (than) by putting more service on that particular line."
He added riders who are losing the Olive Route can access the Yellow route which they can access at Heartland Community College or Main Street in Normal and has greater frequency.
Normal Township trustee Arlene Hosea passionately took exception to McCurdy’s recent comments in a Pantagraph story that “Nothing is accomplished as a result of Facebook posts or bullhorns in a plaza,” referring to the group Citizens to Ensure Fair Transit’s recent protest.
“I stand before you because black people, they stood up and the died with bullhorns while marching,” she told the board. “Because when you don’t have privilege, that’s all you have.
Facebook, Twitter, those are equalizers folks, because sometimes that’s all people have.”
Hile said the working group will seek to reflect a wider cross section of the community so that all demographics are represented.
“What we want to be careful to do is make sure we’ve got a nice mix, a representative mix of riders, of taxpayers, of community members,” Hile said.
Buchanan said she hopes the working group can come up with solutions that will help restore trust.
“There seems to be a level of discourse across the board that has caused a lot of people to not trust folks that may be making decisions that they think are going to be beneficial on their behalf,” Buchanan said.
Connie Kelly, a member of the CEFT group, said she is skeptical of any commission that the transit board will appoint.
“It doesn’t seem like a dynamic that is guaranteed to be a success, but we can always hope that it is,” Kelly said.
Connect Transit General Manager Isaac Thorne said he takes full responsibility for dozens of emails sent by the public which administration did not forward to the Board of Trustees prior to the fare increases and service cuts in March.
Many of those emails were part of a public campaign to lobby the agency not to increase fares or cut the Olive Route.
Thorne said Chairman McCurdy and Vice Chairman Ryan Whitehouse admonished him for not forwarding the emails to the board.
“The emails were not viewed by me prior to the board meeting, not by staff,” Thorne read in a prepared statement. “I did not instruct staff to withhold the emails.”
Thorne added McCurdy had not read the emails and did not instruct him to withhold the emails.
Thorne added he has been contacting other transit agencies to assess the best way to handle emails sent to trustees. He said previously an email link to trustees actually goes to administration.
The Connect Transit board adopted a new $15.7 million annual budget which will take effect July 1. The spending plan represents a nearly 20 percent increase, which is mostly in its capital budget. Thorne said the bulk of that will help cover installation of solar arrays to power its offices and electric buses that Connect Transit plans to buy with Illinois Department of Transportation grants.
Thorne said Connect Transit plans to order 17 electric buses and has funding for 12 of them currently. He said the buses will have higher up-front costs, but should have lower maintenance expenses and are expected to last longer than diesel fuel vehicles.
He added the prospects of state and federal funding in the coming years show the transit agency could be forced to spend 95 percent of its federal funding on operational expenses by 2024, which could curtail capital projects.
"Can the state of Illinois continue to increase funding 10% every year?" Thorne said. "I don't know if that's sustainable. That's one of our fears."
Thorne added ridership rose 9.2 percent through the first quarter of 2019, but that’s still about 10 percent behind its best ridership numbers in 2015.
Editor’s note: Mike McCurdy is GLT’s program director.
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