Illinois State University students, faculty and staff are at risk of losing universal access to Connect Transit bus service starting in January.
The transit board on Thursday failed to reach agreement on a temporary contract to extend service to ISU. The vote was 3-3 and the motion failed.
General Manager Isaac Thorne had presented a six-month extension of the university’s contract. That would have created a window to renegotiate under new terms. ISU’s busing contract expires at the end of the year. The failed motion would have been the second temporary contract extension with ISU.
“It’s unclear what’s going to happen after Dec. 31,” Thorne said. “We're going to find out more about that in the next week or two and see what our board of transportation is willing to do in terms of a contract extension.”
Connect Transit provided 617,000 rides to ISU faculty, staff, and students last year. They ride with a card swipe of their University ID and do not have to pay cash. The lack of a contract would halt dedicated service such as Redbird Express. Students and others connected to ISU would still be able to ride regular routes, but would have to pay their own fares.
Thorne and the Connect Transit board contend ISU doesn’t pay enough for the services it receives.
“That's their opinion,” said ISU interim associate vice president of facilities management, planning, and operations Chuck Scott. “I'd like to be able to sit and visit with their board or with other administration from Connect Transit to try to get to a resolution to this contract."
According to Thorne, the Redbird Express costs $650,000 annually to operate and Illinois State University’s current contract has them footing only $545,000 of the bill. That operating budget also doesn’t factor in that ISU students, faculty and staff have universal access to all of Connect Transit’s routes.
But as Trustee John Bowman pointed out, Connect Transit isn't digging into its reserves to make up the gap. Connect Transit is reimbursed by the Illinois Department of Transportation for 65% of revenue hours that buses are on the streets providing service.
Scott said he’s disappointed about the vote. He said the two parties have been working to come to a solution for months. Scott said he will be reaching out to Connect Transit soon to find a solution.
Over the last few years, Thorne said, the contract payments have increased by 2% per year. That is less than recent annual inflation rates and cost increases. The proposal Thorne was negotiating with ISU would increase that payment to $559,000 annually. Thorne said those discussions have been at a stalemate since September.
If matters change, Thorne said, the transit board could schedule a special meeting and act on a different proposal to extend the contract.
Scott said the proposed extension was sent to Connect Transit in September. It would have provided university bus access until June of next year.
“It's unfortunate it took this long,” he said. “But it was just tonight that it took it to the board. It's unfortunate that it did not pass.”
“We certainly need to have public transit for our students,” Scott said. “And we continue to want to make sure that our students get the best service for transportation throughout the community and will continue to work closely with transit administration to make that happen.”
Board Chairman Mike McCurdy proposed, in place of Thorne’s six-month extension, a three-month extension with the provision that ISU would retroactively pay the rate agreed on in a future contract for the three-month grace period for negotiations.
McCurdy said a tighter time frame would show the university “that both sides need to get to the table.” He said he doesn’t want to make the process adversarial, but that it has been 12 months of attempting to negotiate a new contract with no strides taken.
Connect Transit board members McCurdy, Ryan Whitehouse, and Monica Bullington voted against the motion. Voting in favor were Judy Buchannan, John Bowman, and Julie Hile.
McCurdy’s proposed three-month extension also failed, by a 1 to 5 vote.
Bullington, who voted against two extension motions Thursday, pointed out there are three parties involved: Connect, ISU, and the ISU riders. But she said those most impacted don’t have a voice in the matter.
Whitehouse, the vice chair, voiced early on in the discussion that he would vote against any extension.
Whitehouse said he is a proud Redbird alum and is sensitive to taking away service from students, but “if we extend, ISU will keep pushing for more and more extensions,” and that “it’s time to stand ground.”
Thorne noted ISU accounts for 30% to 35% of Connect Transit’s total ridership.
Ridership is important, Whitehouse said, but the service costs more than the university is willing to pay for and that he feels Connect Transit is being taken advantage of.
“Why do we have to suffer to make them happier?” he asked.
Bowman had a different take.
“I think we need to trim our feathers and realize what this partnership means to the system,” Bowman said.
Illinois State University and Connect Transit have had a service agreement since 2006.
Editor’s Note: WGLT Program Director Mike McCurdy is chair of the Connect Transit Board.
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