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Thursday, July 22, 2004 01:49 pm

Transit fix

Richard Fix says he has heard the same complaints since he became managing director of Springfield Mass Transit District 15 years ago.

Perhaps that's why the SMTD manager appeared bored as several local residents pleaded for the extension of citywide bus service at his agency's monthly board meeting on Tuesday.

"It's nothing new," said Fix after the meeting.

But members of Central Illinois Organizing Project, a grass-roots coalition based in Bloomington, say they intend to pressure SMTD until they get results.

Some three dozen people, many of whom are physically handicapped, packed the hearing room on South Ninth Street to testify that evening bus service is needed especially among disabled and low-income residents.

Bus service in Springfield is currently 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with no Sunday service.

"Many single mothers cannot make their jobs because of transportation," the Rev. Charles Jackson of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church testified at the hearing.

"It's a tremendous barrier for people with disabilities," testified disability rights consultant Dan Dickerson.

Fix downplays the need for extending the city's 12 fixed bus routes. Springfield, he says, has not provided evening bus service for half a century.

Fix also says there is no money available to implement the change, which he estimates would add more than $1 million to the local transit's $7.6 million operating budget.

He points to a recent short-lived program called Transportation to Employment and Self Sufficiency, or TESS, that for three years provided transportation to employment for low-income and disabled residents

"There wasn't many people riding it," says Fix.

But Charlene Edmiston, who heads the local non-profit organization that administered TESS, disagrees.

"A lot of our clients didn't know what they were going to do when the project ended," says Edmiston, executive director of Springfield Community Federation.

Funded in 1999 by a $250,000 federal grant, TESS on average provided 450 rides per month during evening and night-time hours, she said. It operated until the funding dried up, forcing the program to disband earlier this year.

"The need is great," says Edmiston, "especially the way the community is spreading geographically."

Critics of Springfield's limited bus service say the city has fallen behind the times. They point to similarly-sized cities in central Illinois that provide evening and late-night transportation.

"I find it a little surprising that there's not any night service at all in Springfield," says Ty Livingston, director of planning and marketing for Greater Peoria Mass Transit District.

In Peoria, which has an estimated 2003 population of 112,907 compared to Springfield's 113,586, all 10 of its fixed bus routes operate through 1 a.m.

Peoria's night-time bus service began in 2002 after a marketing study showed a shift in the local economy to jobs in the service industry, says Livingston. Due to inadequate transportation, many residents complained of being locked out of the industry's higher paying, late-night employment opportunities.

In Bloomington and Normal, which have a combined population of 113,457, evening bus service was launched last fall after a three-year transportation study prompted by complaints from residents, according to Melanie Alloway, marketing director of Bloomington-Normal Public Transit System.

But Fix of SMTD says it's impossible to compare the busing system in Springfield to other cities.

"Everybody operates differently," says Fix, who agreed to attend a community meeting next month to discuss the issue.

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