By Steve Robinson | October 8, 2019 - 10:23 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – In recent months, there have been concerns regarding service provided to public transit riders in the Twin Cities. Fare increases and service being reduced with the elimination of routes recently prompted Normal Town Council members to invite Board members from Connect Transit to address the issues before Council. That meeting, giving Connect Transit officials an opportunity to provide answers took place at Monday’s regularly-scheduled Council meeting.

Mike McCurdy, Chair, and Ryan Whitehouse, Vice-Chair, of Connect Transit’s Board of Directors, responded to the Council’s request to address Council members and answer questions concerning how the public transit system operates. Whitehouse began by touting that the transit system has seen a ridership of 2.4 million rides in the past year, giving the system a third consecutive year of increased ridership.

Whitehouse added the system has received $7.5 million in grants over the last two years which allowed the system to purchase updated buses. Council Member Chemberly Cummings challenged Whitehouse’s statement about grants, stating that grants usually need to be applied for to address a specific need. Whitehouse responded by explaining the most recent grants applied for were directed at Connect obtaining electronic buses.

If the dollars applied for aren’t specified for that use, Whitehouse said, the money goes back into the coffers of the Federal Transportation Administration. He added that the weight of buses prompted Connect to make the decision not to have the vehicles go through store parking lots, a policy which began in 2016.

Council Member Kathleen Lorenz verified with McCurdy as to why buses no longer go through parking lots at grocery stores and places like Walmart and Meijer. McCurdy explained that not going through those lots “increases efficiency” and helps keep routes on schedule.

McCurdy reminded Council members Connect looked at route restructuring in 2015 and implemented a plan where buses would only make pick-ups at bus stops, a change from previous years, in 2016. Since making that change, McCurdy told Council members, “Ridership is rebounding and we have had our third best year for ridership.”

McCurdy explained that ridership is calculated as per ride. He used the example of if he gets on one bus, that’s one ride. If he transfers from that same bus to another bus, that gets counted as another ride. This formula, he added, is in line with rules established by Federal Transportation Administration.

McCurdy added that if the number of transfers asked for aren’t up, but Connect sees more rides taken, it shows them ridership is increasing. In response to not serving certain areas due to what Connect’s analysis sees as areas with low ridership, Whitehouse explained Connect “doesn’t feel it’s right to put money into an area until it has data to back it up. We’re trying to provide the best service possible.”

Connect Transit is attempting to phase out 30 foot buses in favor of 35 foot vehicles, McCurdy said, explaining maintenance costs are the reason for the change.

Connect receives money from Illinois State University which allows students, faculty, staff, and retired staff to ride with just a swipe of a University I.D. card. Council Member Karyn Smith mentioned this and referred to it as a “subsidy.” Mayor Chris Koos was quick to correct Smith informing her it is not a subsidy. ISU pays Connect to cover the cost of that service.

Smith addressed McCurdy and Whitehouse, explaining there are reports of areas where buses drop off at points that are not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act. One of those is outside of OSF St. Joseph Hospital across from the former Bergner’s along Eastland Dr. In part, McCurdy responded by saying the transit system predates ADA.

Normal and Bloomington both provide money to Connect Transit’s operation. Council Member Stan Nord added to the conversation saying if the transit system wants money from the Town, Connect needs to see to it the money is spent to help provide service for citizens in areas currently not served or not served as well by the transit service.

McCurdy responded to Nord’s comment saying, “If this Council wants us to serve low ridership areas, then you should help us find the financing to do that.”

Previous Meeting Minutes Questioned: During the section of the meeting where omnibus items – items Council members address and use one vote to decide on — Nord and Smith took issue with minutes from previous council meetings because they say key details are left out. Nord referred to doing that as rewriting history, adding he believed to do so was wrong.

City Clerk Angie Huonker takes the minutes at Council sessions and found her work being defended by Council Member Lorenz. Lorenz cautioned the Council should be careful in suggesting history is being rewritten. When a vote was taken to edit the minutes of the Council’s previous meeting held Sept. 16, Only Nord and Smith voted in favor. Koos, joined by Council Members Chemberly Cummings, Kevin McCarthy, Scott Preston, and Lorenz, voted against any edit taking place.

Omnibus Agenda Items Approved: Omnibus agenda items approved by the Council included:

• Approval of minutes of regular meeting held Sept. 16, 2019.

• Report to receive and file Town expenditures for payment as of Oct. 2, 2019.

• A resolution to accept water treatment plant chemical bids from November 2019 through October 2020.

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