After opponents of recent changes at Connect Transit rallied below Uptown Station Monday night, Township Supervisor Sarah Grammer and Normal Mayor Chris Koos said their call and response has fallen silent.
A crowd of about 50 children and adults gathered on the plaza before Monday’s town council meeting. Several speakers, including Grammer, spoke against the Connect Transit board’s vote to increase fares and eliminate the Olive bus route. The group Citizens to Ensure Fair Transit organized the event, and invited Grammer to attend.
Grammer accused Connect Transit last month of deliberately withholding public feedback about proposed rate hikes and route changes by not sharing it with the agency’s board. She also called for Bloomington and Normal’s mayors to recall the entire Connect Transit board, and hold another round of public hearings before a repeat vote.
Grammer maintained her position Monday, saying a board with greater rider representation would make sure to take public feedback into account before making major decisions like increasing fares or eliminating routes.
“What the riders and many of the drivers (of Connect Transit) seem to be asking for is a board that’s more representative of transit,” she said. “Why can't we have a person with disabilities on the transit board to speak to those issues? Why can’t we have parents who have depended on the system to grocery shop, get their kids to medical appointments?”
Connect Transit General Manager Isaac Thorne estimated last month the agency would need another $100,000 to stave off rate hikes.
Grammer said she spoke to Thorne ahead of the board’s last hearing about delaying the proposed changes, in order to approach the township board about providing grant funds to the organization. She said she hasn’t explored the option further since Connect Transit approved the changes.
She also hasn’t spoken to anyone at the Town of Normal on the issue. Grammer said she’s been busy with the township’s annual meeting last week and board meeting with budget hearing this week.
“So I’ve been really wrapped up in Normal Township business the past week and a half, and I have not heard anything further from the town,” she said.
But Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he’s been waiting to hear from Grammer.
“I have had no contact with Sarah Grammer on (Connect Transit matters),” he said. “In my letter, I said this is a community problem that we need to deal with as a community, and it would require dialogue, and it was my hope that maybe she would contact me or the council.”
Koos again said he would not recall Connect Transit board members.
“We appoint people to the Connect Transit board based on their interest in it,” he said. “They may be stakeholders, they may be subject matter experts. I don’t feel like I want to be in a position where I appoint people to do work and then second-guess the work they do.”
Koos said board commissioners acknowledge there is more work to be done, especially to address the concerns of Connect Mobility riders about the service’s new fee structure.
Thorne said Connect Transit needs to cut costs to offset rising wages and inflation.
Asked whether the town would explore spending additional dollars to fund Connect Transit services, Koos said, “It’s something I think we can look at certainly, but municipal budgets all over the country are very thin and very tight, and there are a lot of tough decisions to make.”
“A lot of people look at local governments to print money to solve problems, and we just don’t have that ability,” he added. Koos previously said the town has increased its funding for the agency since 2009, including $878,000 in the current budget year.
He said there are other ways to work within the agency’s tight budget. One option would be for Connect Transit to collect taxes as a public transit district, but Koos said he doesn’t feel there’s “any stomach for that in the Bloomington-Normal community.”
Meanwhile public opposition to last month’s Connect Transit board vote continues.
Cara McMorris, a pastor at Hope Church in Bloomington, said she attended Monday’s rally to represent Connect Mobility riders.
“I’m here today because many of them can’t be here,” she said. “They can’t just show up when they want to to something. They have to get the bus 24 hours in advance.”
McMorris described one of the church’s members, who is wheelchair-bound because of multiple sclerosis.
“His lifeline is the bus,” she said. “I don’t need this to be one more thing for us to be fighting for.”
Jen Morsch said because she is blind, she primarily relies on Connect Mobility to get around. She said by eliminating the Connect Mobility 30-day unlimited pass in favor of a value card, Connect Transit will force riders who use the service frequently to pay more for fewer rides.
“Somebody who’s just going to work would use up a 40-ride pass, which is going to be $85, within a few weeks,” she said. “That’s not to mention anything else they need to do.”
Rally organizers said the group Citizens to Ensure Fair Transit is planning another event next week.
Editor's note: Connect Transit board chair Mike McCurdy is GLT's program director.
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