Road worthy: Connect Transit eyes long-term spending | Government and Politics

NORMAL — After months struggling to stay above water, Connect Transit is looking ahead to a still-cloudy financial future.

Despite fears that the Bloomington-Normal public transit system would shut down Jan. 1 due to delayed state funding, it now has enough money to operate through at least June, leaving officials to decide how to tackle a logjam of deferred costs, including the possibility of curtailing bus routes.

“Right now we have 23 of 42 vehicles on fixed-route (service) that have to be replaced in the next three to five years, preferably sooner,” said interim General Manager Isaac Thorne. “How do we find the capital money to replace our aging fleet when most of our money is being used for operating?”

Thorne told the system’s board of trustees last week that budget uncertainty has led officials to use money usually reserved for capital projects for day-to-day costs over decades, and that’s unlikely to change soon.

“We’ve been successful in the past getting discretionary grants for buses. (In 2014) we got seven buses replaced with a grant … But we don’t know if the Trump administration is going to approve those funds,” he said. “Last year they rolled them out in March or April, and we’ve heard nothing (in 2017).”

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal discontinues the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant programs, which help fund bus systems. That budget plan is a blueprint only but shows the president’s priorities.

“(Transportation) Secretary (Elaine) Chao has said she loves the FAST Act, so that’s at least something,” Thorne said.

State grants are in doubt as well. Thorne said the Illinois Department of Transportation told Connect Transit it received a grant for $3 million in 2013, but that was never delivered, dashing hopes to replace nine buses with it.

“That’s indefinitely on hold,” he said. “We may have to (reapply).”

Andrew Johnson, who was the system’s general manager until Friday, told the board he’s heard the state could do another capital program soon, but “in the three-to-five year window we’ve got, we can’t really count on it.”

Board member Jennifer McDade said she’d prefer to discuss solutions to the funding problem before it becomes critical. Thorne said Connect Transit should approve a budget in May, and the board has scheduled three special planning sessions in April.

“No one wants to have a conversation, and I’m not looking to start one, about cutting routes, but this is bleak,” McDade said. “Which routes, for example, are the heaviest-utilized right now, and which ones are not? … I know we’re starting to see some trends on the new routes.”

Thorne said any route changes would likely be presented to the public after the budget is approved, over the summer. The system rolled out a new map and schedule last August intended to increase ridership, which has decreased year-over-year every month since April 2015.

“The top eight routes have 80 percent of the ridership,” said Thorne — the Aqua, Green, Lime, Pink, Purple, Red, Redbird Express and Yellow routes.

Board member John Bowman noted farebox recovery — what percentage of system expenses is recouped by fares — has tumbled as well, and he said it needs to improve. That would mean either more riders or higher fares charged per rider.

The system’s $1 base fare has not increased since 2007, Thorne said.

Board Chairman Mike McCurdy said the route restructuring was projected to increase riders more than 10 percent, and that could still happen. He suggested the system wait on changing fares until after tweaking routes. 

Normal City Manager Mark Peterson said farebox revenue won’t solve the system’s funding problems regardless. Connect Transit gets 65 percent of its funding from the state, another 7 percent from Bloomington and Normal governments, and the rest from federal money and fares.

“The community needs to come together and decide what kind of transit services they want for the future,” Johnson said.

“The board’s going to have some heavy lifting to do,” said McCurdy.

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Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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