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Thursday, July 5, 2012 06:55 am

SMTD sees change ahead

Transportation advocates involved in talks to improve service

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Buses operated by the Springfield Mass Transit District line up along Capital Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets, an area that serves as a central downtown hub for riders. The newly-formed Transportation Advocacy Group is asking SMTD for service impr
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Janice Smith of Springfield says the public bus system is her lifeline. She rides buses all over Springfield to work, to shop and to visit friends – in short, everywhere. She’s on a bus almost every day of her life, except on Sundays, when the buses don’t run where she needs to go.

“On Sundays, I can’t go anywhere,” Smith says. “I don’t have any family to drive me.”

If Smith and a group of concerned bus-riders in Springfield get their way, however, that could soon change. Formed about three months ago, the Transportation Advocacy Group (TAG) focuses on improving public transit in Springfield. TAG’s first project is collecting petition signatures asking the Springfield Mass Transit District and the City of Springfield to implement a handful of improvements to bus services and infrastructure. For TAG, it’s a matter of safety, equality and economic development, but for frequent riders like Janice Smith, it’s a matter of survival. And although the group officially has only three members, they’ve already got the ear of SMTD.

TAG held an open house last week to collect petition signatures and ask Springfield bus riders what improvements they’d like to see. The group already has a few of its own ideas in mind. Among them is extending bus services to full time on Saturday and Sunday nights, consolidation of bus stops in a lighted shelter at White Oaks Mall, and eliminating route number changes that confuse some riders on looped routes. TAG also wants a commitment from the City of Springfield to install better pedestrian walkway signals for people with disabilities at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Fifth Street, near the main bus stop downtown.

Steven Simpson-Black, a 24-year-old student at the University of Illinois Springfield, is a founding member of TAG and also the group’s youngest member. He studies public transportation at UIS and exhibits an intricate knowledge of how transportation systems work and how they affect a city’s livability. For Simpson-Black, improvements to the bus system and other modes of transit are a way to attract more young people to Springfield, which he says will bring greater economic prosperity.

“My personal goal is to make Springfield the kind of place where I can choose not to drive,” he says. “I know a lot of people my age are talking about where they’re going to go to college, and they want to go to a place where they don’t have to pay $70 a semester just to park a car.”

Kathy Joyce, another founding member of TAG, rides the bus regularly to her job as a registered nurse. Joyce says the improvements proposed by TAG are just the beginning, but they’re geared toward increasing ridership and level of service.

“I’d like to see it maintained and tweaked to serve as many people as possible, not just one certain population,” she says. “We have a bad economy, people have gone down to one-car families or no-car families. They need to get to work and to school. … I think it’s important for a city’s growth to maintain a public transportation system, and that all citizens – even if they don’t use it – need to know the use and the benefit that comes to their city with public transportation.”

Steven Hamelin, assistant managing director for SMTD, says he’s been on the job for only a couple of months, but already he has noticed areas ripe for improvement. Hamelin moved to Springfield after managing bus services for Flint, Mich., for 15 years. He met with TAG last week to hear their concerns and share his own vision for SMTD.

He said he is working on new ways to integrate technology like smartphones, a rider code of conduct addressing issues like dress code, and other changes. He declined to discuss specifics because the proposed changes are still in planning stages and would require approval of the SMTD board. Hamelin said SMTD is already working on implementing some of TAG’s proposals. His main focus, he said, is efficiency.

“We are working to change the culture within our organization,” Hamelin said. “Over the next six months there will be some noticeable changes that take place aboard the system. … I came here out of other choices that I had because this is not a broken system; it just needs to be enhanced.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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