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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004 01:37 pm

Getting on board

Springfield’s disabled population has been leading the effort to extend bus service into the evening
Photo by Todd Spivak

Bowing to pressure from a coalition of local community groups, the Springfield Mass Transit District on Monday agreed to seek funding for a study to explore the possibility of extending bus service into the evening.

The five-member SMTD board unanimously approved the motion at the end of its monthly meeting, which -- like its meeting in July -- was bombarded by several dozen protesters.

"You took the first step," SMTD board chairman Mike Aiello told those in attendance. "It is our charge now to get this accomplished."

Despite the apparent victory, some activists worry that the SMTD board is pandering to them, and they insist on participating in future discussions on the issue.

"We don't want this to be a delaying tactic," says activist Jane Ford, who testified Monday, "though it's very obvious that they can't ignore us."

The board's decision came on the heels of a well-attended two-hour community meeting held Saturday morning at First Presbyterian Church downtown. There, veteran SMTD director Richard Fix listened and jotted down notes as dozens of people stressed the importance of evening bus service, especially for disabled and low-income people.

Fix later said he was impressed by the community's persistence on the issue.

"If they're wanting something done they got to be organized," he says. "They're doing exactly what they should be doing."

Although SMTD is now officially on board, Fix says new revenue streams still must be identified with which to provide evening bus service.

For the last half-century, buses have operated in Springfield from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with no Sunday service. Extending the routes through midnight as requested would add $1 million to the agency's $7.6 million operating budget, says Fix.

The proposed feasibility study could cost more than $50,000 and take more than a year to carry out, he says.

Fix has already served up a variety of ways in which to pay for the additional services, none of which is likely to be adopted. They include a referendum for a tax increase and cutbacks in daytime and paratransit services.

"This is not something that's going to be easy," he says.

Nearly 150 people attended Saturday's meeting, including a host of community leaders and elected officials. The Central Illinois Organizing Project, which represents a coalition of 30 area churches, hosted the event.

Aides to U.S. Reps. John Shimkus and Lane Evans, as well as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who lives in Springfield, said they would help seek federal funds for the expansion.

"We need to find a way that we can get the money," says Durbin staff assistant Sylvia Gillespie. "We are in some really, really difficult economic times, and we need another option."

Other advocates who spoke included Springfield NAACP president Rudy Davenport, members of the Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness, and representatives from the Springfield Department of Human Services.

Many said that Springfield's transit system should be modeled after those of similarly sized Illinois cities such as Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, and Rockford, all of which have nighttime service.

Others complained that without the service, thousands of low-income workers are barred from seeking evening employment at the growing commercial centers on the west and north sides of the city.

A member of the Sangamon County Board and a pair of Springfield City Council members also testified.

Calling the current transit system discriminatory, Ward 2 Ald. Frank McNeil said, to applause, "We can't be a first-class city if we don't treat everyone in the city as first-class citizens."

Ward 7 Ald. Judy Yeager approached the microphone with the help of a cane, which she has relied on since sustaining a stroke earlier this year.

No longer able to drive since returning to work in July, Yeager rides the bus each day from her Washington Park home to her ward office on Old Capitol Square.

The lack of evening bus hours, she says, can be isolating: "My own health problems have made me more sympathetic. I plan to be another loud voice on this issue."

But support from city officials may not carry much weight. The transit district, like the Springfield Park District, is its own taxing agency, independent of the city.

"[SMTD] is an entirely separate government body," says Ernie Slottag, spokesman for Mayor Tim Davlin. "Technically the city has nothing to do with them."

Although the SMTD board has agreed to study the issue, Fix remains doubtful of the need for nighttime busing.

"I know I've been bad-mouthed about not wanting to do it," he says, "but you don't want a bus out there that's got nobody riding."

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