After surveying Connect Transit riders, the McLean County Regional Planning Commission is recommending the agency focus on catering to those who rely on the service.
Executive Director Vasu Gadhiraju presented the results of the survey, outlined in the planning commission’s Connect Transit Short Range Transit Plan, to the agency’s Board of Trustees Tuesday evening.
Gadhiraju said Connect Transit’s current riders are “very much a population on low-income.”
“At least 50% of current riders reported incomes under $15,000, and 90% of them reported incomes under $50,000,” she said.
For those riders, the current bus passes are too expensive to pay up-front. That means they pay more over time for cash-pay fares, she explained.
Gadhiraju also said her team’s analysis of Connect Transit data shows ridership is growing.
That’s in line with Connect Transit’s own reports that fixed route ridership has increased more than 9% in the last year, putting it on pace to make this year the third highest ridership in system history.
Gadhiraju said growing ridership can only mean a growing number of transit-dependent riders.
She offered a few ideas to help address those riders' needs, including employing fare-capping technologies and partnering with the McLean County Chamber of Commerce to extend the universal access program to riders employed at local businesses.
Connect Transit Chairman Mike McCurdy asked Gadhiraju whether accommodating transit-dependent riders could also help the agency attract more so-called “choice” riders. (McCurdy is also GLT's program director.)
Gadhiraju said based on information gathered in other communities, the two are linked.
“By serving our transit-dependent population better, I think we only improve our choice riders,” she said.
In the transit plan, the planning commission also identified areas with high likelihood of transit ridership, or “transit propensity.”
“What we found is that the routes are actually really-well lined up with the model,” said Assistant Planner Teresa Anderson.
Trustee Ryan Whitehouse said he finds that result encouraging.
“You're a third-party objective agency that’s respected in this community that knows what you’re doing, and you are saying some of the things that this board has been trying to achieve for some time now,” he said.
That includes the finding that the agency’s use of dollars from the state’s Downstate Operating Assistance Program is limited without sufficient local matching dollars. Transportation Planner Jennifer Sicks said that means Connect Transit must use more federal funds for operations, instead of applying that funding to capital investments.
Sicks said addressing those issues is beyond the scope of that 3 to 5-year transit plan; “one consideration may be the institution of a transit district in Bloomington-Normal,” she said.
Trustee Judy Buchanan said the report came at just the right time as the board prepares to launch the Connect to the Future working group.
Trustees approved 11 members of the working group Tuesday evening: Kimberly Klepec, Tim Bassett, Marty Eckert, Linda Foster, Dylan Hile-Broad, Steven Kossman, Josh Barnett, Deborah Presley, Katie Killian, Julie Hile and Judy Buchanan.
Buchanan said she anticipates another two to three members may join the working group in the coming weeks. Any additional members would require approval from the Board of Trustees.
Buchanan also said trustees are currently in the process of confirming a group facilitator. Once that process is complete, the board will announce dates for public working group meetings on the Connect Transit website, she said.
Contract with ISU
Connect Transit General Manager Isaac Thorne says the agency is currently negotiating with Illinois State University to change how it funds universal access for students.
Trustees approved a 6-month extension on the current 2-year contract, originally set to expire June 30. But Thorne said he doesn’t want to approve another extension come Dec. 31.
“I want a long-term funding model and contract with them," he said.
Thorne said currently ISU pays the agency an annual flat fee for the service, a model Whitehouse said is unfair to Connect Transit.
“We’ve been asking for a fair partnership for a long time,” he said. “We’ve raised fees on other riders, we’ve had to realign some systems and some routes to make sure that we have the funding to make this system financially stable. It’s time for ISU to start seriously talking to us about providing this service to them.”
Instead, the agency would prefer to adopt a new model already in use in surrounding communities that includes money for buses on top of a per-student fee.
Buchanan asked whether Thorne had discussed with ISU the possibility of limiting services in the future.
“So they are aware that there could realistically be some cuts?”
“Yes,” Thorne answered.
Thorne said he acknowledges that ISU, like Connect Transit, continues to grapple with financial constraints.
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