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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 09:07 pm

Behind schedule

Plans to bring evening bus service to Springfield are running way late

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If you’re still waiting for evening bus service to start in Springfield, you might want to invest in a sturdy pair of shoes. With the help of U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin and Barack Obama, the Springfield Mass Transit District was awarded a $375,000 grant last year to keep about four bus routes running past 10 p.m. for one year. Public transportation is a lifeline for area residents — especially the disabled, the elderly, and the poor. Springfield’s buses currently stop running at 6 p.m., which severely limits the employment options and schedule flexibility of people who depend on them. Almost a year after the grant was announced, SMTD is still waiting on the money, says managing director Richard Fix. The money should have been allocated to the Federal Transit Administration, which specifically deals with public transportation, but was placed in the Federal Highway Administration’s budget, Fix says. Once the grant money is freed from the bureaucratic labyrinth that it’s stuck in right now, implementing evening expansion could still be a ways off. Originally earmarked for capital projects, not operational expenses, the money will be useless to SMTD unless the agency gets special permission from the federal authorities to use the money to pay for fuel and bus drivers’ salaries. “It’s a good sign that nobody’s said no yet,” says Don Carlson, executive director of the Central Illinois Organizing Project, the group that has been leading the push to see evening bus service return to Springfield for the first time in 50 years. More money will also be needed. Fix estimates that SMTD will need a total of $1.2 million to offer evening service. Although the rising price of gasoline has boosted the number of people riding the buses by 4 percent, SMTD, too, is paying more for gas — about $2.50 per gallon times 90 to 95 gallons per bus — leading to a 25-cent fare increase that will become effective around the beginning of September. Once the check is in the bank, SMTD would have to go through the normal grant process: The money would flow from the federal government through the Illinois Department of Transportation before finding its way to SMTD. “This could take six months; it could take a year,” Fix says, depending on IDOT’s workload. “We knew from the get-go that this wasn’t going to be simple,” says Jane Ford, a local activist and CIOP member. Caving in response to pressure from organizations such as CIOP, Springfield transit officials agreed in 2004 to seek funding to expand some of its routes into the evening hours [see Todd Spivak, “Getting on board,” Aug. 19, 2004]. To further justify the need for nighttime routes, CIOP last fall conducted a study that revealed that other capital cities comparable in size to Springfield already offer evening bus service. According to an IDOT spokesman, negotiations are now underway with the Urbitran Group, a New York-based engineering consulting firm, to determine the feasibility of offering night bus service. The study would also identify potential funding sources, which would likely be generated from local sources, Fix adds. Ford believes that the study is critical to getting the project off the ground. “Without the state saying there’s a need, it won’t happen. We need to get the Legislature to understand that transportation money downstate isn’t just roads,” she says. For its part, the city can’t do much to help expedite the process, either. “Short of writing a check, I’m not sure what we could do. The budget is pretty tight this year,” says City Hall spokesman Ernie Slottag. “We’re still trying to squeeze out fire trucks and squad cars.”
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