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What the state budget crisis means for MTD

Often when we think about public transportation, we think about where we’re local: what a particular city is like, the sprawl, how long a commute may generally take, the number of connections, and how crowded it could be. But we are also forced to think about our purpose for using public transportation. As a native of south suburb Chicagoland, with the Metra line running all the way from University Park to Millennium Station in Chicago, I was accustomed to associating trains with out-of-the-ordinary excursions and area Pace buses with the obvious: people who could not drive for some external reason. And a few years ago, I became part of that demographic.

In reality, many choose to use public transportation because of its affordability and convenience as well, at least when the system is organized and dependable. Alternative methods of transportation (walking, biking, skating, ride-sharing, riding a bus or train) are typically considered more feasible in dense populations, where car traffic should be limited, but people have begun to choose it over private automobiles for environmental concerns, too – not just strictly because of the cost of a car.

According to Census Bureau data reviewed by Daily Illini, “Urbana has about 55% of residents using their car to commute to work, followed by walkers at 15-16%. Sixteen percent of residents use public transit and 6% bike.” Champaign’s demographic is a bit different, however, with closer to 74% driving, 12% walking, and 11% using something other than a bike to commute. Additionally, “carpooling has declined since 1980, dropping from 19.7% to 9%, according to the report.”

Though Champaign-Urbana is considered at large one community, transportation options and choices vary between them. Champaign may have more car commuters than Urbana because more individuals in Champaign own cars and prefer them to public transportation, but it also happens to be that Urbana has provided more bike lanes, The Bike Project’s efforts have a stronger presence there, and relative distance to the University of Illinois campus is shorter when coming from Urbana due to Champaign’s wider suburban development.

Unfortunately, there are other issues to weigh, such as a lack of safe accessibility to routes (a few sections of Champaign, particularly as one nears the business district, are missing sidewalks or they cut in and out), route placement, and commute times deterring the use of public transportation in Champaign-Urbana.

Obviously, services are skewed toward the University of Illinois campus because of the Mass Transit District’s contract with the university, which was renewed this past year. University of Illinois was expected to mandate students pay $60 this year per semester, raising it incrementally until the expiration of the contract. A mistake was made, however, and the charge is sitting at $59. Next year to amend the problem, it will be increased to $61, and the year after, $62. An annual pass for community members is now $84, and a monthly pass is $20. Daily fare (single ride passes) has not been altered. The decision behind this has to do with the fact that 95% of all income based on fare only comes from yearly and monthly passes, according to Karl Gnadt, MTD’s Managing Director.

Champaign-Urbana’s MTD supplements the expense of providing services for reasonable prices by applying for federal and state-based grants, such as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation, ARPA-E funding (periodically awarded to assist a business or community in overcoming technical barriers related to technology and energy), and JARC (the Job Access and Reverse Commute program, administered by the Federal Transit Administration). Advertising also plays a role, but it is not the largest source of monetary support at this time. The majority of funding comes from these grants and purchased passes.

When asked whether or not MTD generates and maintains a profit, Gnadt stated,

“There is no profit margin for sure. We operate with a, if not for subsidies, at a deficit. Public transit all across the country does. And for the most part, across the world, though there are some exceptions to that.”

Given that they operate at a deficit, creating efficient routes that reach all residents in need of service can prove a stressful mission. The further a resident is from the hub of operations, the more trying it is to make sure that the overall commute is on-time and effective. In order to resolve some of these disparities in service, Gnadt said, “Sometimes we just change the routing so that we can accommodate the pressure points that are causing the schedule adherence problems.” Meaning: routes have to change if they contain inconsistencies and when a glut or overabundance of riders are in that area.

This year, additions such as the Raven are assisting with that, a Green line now goes to Parkland, and the Pink route has been moderated (among other minor tweaks to routes, such as the Grey no longer interlining with the Brown). But routes like the Pink, unlike others, are hard to determine, Gnadt says,

“The Pink route operates in an area of town … out of the fringe of the district, and so there are no easy direct connections to the rest of the system we have. …When we look at the Pink route we are trying to tie in the biggest generators – we wanted to have it serving Country Fair, we wanted it to serve Parkland College, the YMCA.”

To make this happen, MTD closely observes where the largest generators of ridership area and charges only for overall service level, rather than how many rides are taken. Their calculation is how the university determines what changes (increases or reductions in service) are economically sound, but it also keeps rates affordable for riders further away from the more serviced areas. Gnadt states that,

“We take the hours of service we provide to campus that students have asked for, total the number of hours, multiply that by our cost per hour and say to the university, ‘This is what we need, this is what the students have asked for … and this is how much it costs.’ And that is broken down to what the student transportation fee is.”

Hypothetically speaking, if university-affiliated riders wanted routes expanded into less serviced areas off campus, and were willing to negotiate with the university to increase the transportation fee, that could be done, and it could have a positive community-wide impact as our population grows. Depending on requests, it could also help those living further from highly serviced areas without other reliable forms of transportation.

Expansion (either to increase route frequencies, re-route, and/or add new lines) could also come from local property taxes if they are increased appropriately. But according to Gnadt, no other taxes can be introduced to accomplish such a goal, and increasing property taxes in Champaign county or in the state at all is probably not a manageable or achievable goal.

“We can’t legally levy for instance a sales tax or some kind of special use tax. We are only eligible to levy a property tax. At least currently, under current law. So unless a lobbying effort went into changing that law to allow us to do something different, that’s what we have to operate under. A referendum for us would be to increase the level of authority that we have to levy our  property taxes … That would take a district-wide referendum, to do that. In this current climate, that would be a really, really difficult task at this stage. The governor is talking about freezing property taxes all across the state so that taxing entities like the districts, and the counties, and the cities – park districts, sanitary districts, everybody: we would be artificially by the governor forced into not making any changes to our levy. They would be frozen. … He has support for that, so I’m not trying to make a political statement or even have a political conversation – there is also support against it – but there is support for it state-wide. Even if we were granted that authority, if that tax freeze is passed, we still can’t raise the taxes. So it’s a tricky time.”

MTD strives to attract outside funding to the area in part because of this, says Gnadt.

“The more outside federal and state money we bring to the area, that’s money spent on jobs and infrastructure improvement that our residents benefit from but did not have to directly pay for.”

Because of the looming budget impasse, class action lawsuits are pending because of government failure to pay out (the cases currently in questions involve the Illinois Lottery), but it affects every state-assisted entity, and lawsuits are continually being filed (and there is talk of protest and strikes). Public education, nonprofits, mental health services, civil service professions, emergency dispatch, and transportation are all compromised. Bond sales are halting and people are losing their jobs in professions where stability is vital so that individuals in need can survive, receive effective care, commute to work, and so forth.

The 171 state employee layoffs Rauner proposed in August to set in motion late September have furthered contention, particularly because the cuts disproportionately affect the Department of Natural Resources, which expects to lose 107 people, mostly museum specialists. In response, a union lawsuit forced a delay, citing the action as “arbitrarily” conceived and blamed on the budget crisis. As January comes to a close,the standstill remains – which would  and these entities, many of which do operate at a deficit or sans profit, will be negatively impacted. According to recent reports, a proposed and accepted budget might not be a reality until March.

Without significant outside funding for MTD in the absence of an accepted budget, it is unclear how exactly Champaign-Urbana’s public transportation will evolve and whether or not carpooling (whether with an owned vehicle or via Zipcar) will make a comeback as a result of the economic climate. We can assume that routes funded entirely or nearly so by federal grants or other stipends may not be affected at all, but state funded public transportation is certainly facing serious difficulties at this moment in time.

(Photo by user Benjamin Stone)

It should also be noted, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District regularly posts about their board meeting agendas. For those concerned about the future of local transportation, this is a means to better understand what issues and needs are addressed.

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