Token Support: Downstate Transit Funding Has Stalled, But the Need is Accelerating

Nov 1, 2007


Chicago-area mass transit has gotten most of the attention in Springfield this year. Yet two dozen of the state's 102 counties, nearly a quarter of them, lack any form of public transportation, according to the Rural Transit Assistance Center at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Another 11 counties provide mass transit service in a single city only.

Transportation advocates argue downstate deserves more attention because of public transit's critical link to the rest of the state's economy. It's a completely different system from those serving northeastern Illinois, and it doesn't come at high cost, says Linda Wheeler, former director of the Office of Planning and Programming for the Illinois Department of Transportation. 

"The times that I spent riding systems down in deep southern Illinois, I went off to their chicken dinners," she says. "They were having chicken dinners to help pay for it. And the seniors were making a quilt at the senior center, which then was auctioned off to help pay for the service."

Wheeler is now a consultant and works with the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, comprised of business, labor, government and transportation groups. A report she wrote, which was published by the coalition, concludes that Illinois continues to miss the bus when it comes to capturing millions of dollars in federal grants that would help transportation providers expand services. That's because after four years of flat funding for transit capital, the state hasn't come up with new revenue to match the federal grants since fiscal year 2004.

"New state funding for transit capital in FY 2004 was $356 million; now it's zero," Wheeler wrote in the 2005 report. 

The absence of new state money for capital led 60 downstate public transportation systems to report that, combined, they'll need $334 million to replace aging buses, upgrade technology, repair transportation facilities and expand services through 2009, according to last year's Capital Needs Assessment commissioned by the state transportation department and the Illinois Public Transportation Association.

In addition to failing to come up with  capital funds for transit, the state uses what Wheeler calls outdated funding programs to help service providers recover operating costs. 

Several downstate systems are experiencing enough demand to extend services to growing areas or add evening and Sunday routes, but the state assistance   isn't providing those operators with the lift they need. Further, additional counties are interested in receiving such operating assistance. 

As a result, downstate systems are looking to controversial legislation, which was stalled in the Illinois House as of mid-October, to receive state assistance to recover up to 65 percent — it's now 55 percent — of their operating costs and expand their services to unserved areas outside the current boundaries. Given the contentious legislative session this year and competing transit funding legislation in the Senate, the potential for state inaction could mean downstate transit providers will have to take the road less traveled to make the most of the resources they have.

Anna Oestreich, director of the Bond County Senior Center in Greenville, is eagerly waiting to see if the House version of a mass transit plan will squeeze through the political bottleneck created by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan. The Bond County Senior Center's transportation service is one of 15 new providers that would get reimbursed for up to 65 percent of their operating costs from the state if Rep. Julie Hamos' legislation became law. 

Hamos, an Evanston Democrat, organized numerous public hearings over a couple of years and led the House Mass Transit Committee in drafting legislation designed primarily to help Chicago-area transit. The bill also would enhance the Downstate Operating Assistance Program, which is funded through some of the state's sales tax revenue. The program serves as a supplement to federal grants.

Oestreich says her Bond County transportation service could receive up to $170,000 to cover some operating costs and some expansions. She now receives less than $60,000 from the state to help with her nearly $190,000 operating budget.

The new money is particularly important, she says, because she expects demand to increase. Greenville is 45 miles east of St. Louis, and urban sprawl is inching toward her service area. 

But keeping up with current needs is challenging enough for small transportation districts like hers because, among other cost factors, the minimum wage and the price of gas keep going up, she says. 

"Our expenses climb a lot faster than our resources do, so the Downstate Operating Assistance money is something that we are eagerly looking for in order to, No. 1, maintain existing services and, No. 2, expand."

Without the new state assistance? She says, "You can indicate a long pause here. I don't see anything right now that would enable us to do that."

Hamos' measure also would require a 10 percent increase in funding each year. And to address the long-term capital needs of the downstate systems, the legislation would end the practice of sweeping unused sales tax revenue from the downstate transit fund into the state's general fund. That transfer amounted to $274,000 in fiscal year 2007 after the previous year's reimbursements were paid to providers, according to the governor's Office of Management and Budget.

Hamos' measure is backed by the House speaker but opposed by the governor. Blagojevich opposes a provision that would allow Cook County to increase sales taxes as a means of reviving the financially strapped Chicago-area transit systems. The plan narrowly failed in the House in September. Another committee hearing produced ideas but no action.

A second proposal, supported by Blagojevich and his Democratic ally, Senate President Emil Jones Jr., won bipartisan support in the Senate in late September. It would create three new casinos to generate money for major capital plans across the state, including money for downstate mass transit operating costs. But that plan also could end up in a political pothole because of the controversy over creating so many new casinos.

Members of the Illinois Public Transit Association oppose the casino plan because they believe it wouldn't provide a long-term solution, says Linda Podeschi, executive director of the Springfield-based association. She warns that the political gridlock could collide with the impending need to prepare for expansion of public transit systems around the state.

Illinois' senior population is expected to triple by 2030, according to U.S. Census projections. Along with the general population, they are moving out of the cities to less congested areas, and many rural seniors or disabled people will need help getting to doctors' offices or medical centers across county lines. Transportation providers will struggle to accommodate this aging dispersed population with aging facilities and fleets of vehicles.

If neither the House nor the Senate transit proposal wins final approval, Podeschi says to expect the status quo  because nothing else is in the works.

However, there is another way downstate transportation providers, particularly those in rural areas, could improve their chances of getting state and federal dollars. Government funding programs are beginning to break with tradition by focusing on coordinated systems that mesh human services with transportation services. They're rewarding local agencies that combine to prevent, for instance, one bus driving seniors and another bus driving people with disabilities to the same destinations.

Several changes are converging. The feds recently embraced the coordination strategy, using a southern Illinois service as an example. At the same time, the state is establishing regions for coordination planning efforts. The Illinois transportation department now requires transit districts or counties to complete  such planning before they receive state reimbursements for operating expenses.

The logic is simple. In fact, it's something a handful of seniors in far southeastern Illinois accomplished in the 1970s. The Golden Circle Senior Citizen Center in rural Pope County laid the groundwork for what is now a national award-winning 14-county transportation service.

Rides, as it's called, became the First Rural Mass Transit District in 1990. 

It started with the mission of driving seniors to meal centers or delivering meals to homebound seniors. As it evolved, the service adapted to the communities' needs and now has a fleet of some 70 buses and a river taxi. 

It transports seniors, people with disabilities and the general public to jobs, doctors' appointments or any other appointment that is part of the coordinated service region.

Rides sets up contracts with local agencies to reserve seats for individuals who share destinations, but people also can hop on some of the buses that rotate within designated zones. Or they can call one main number to request a ride.

"We're the broker," says Bill Jung, Rides director and chief executive officer. "We're the mobility management entity so they have one place to go to look for a ride."

If a scheduled ride won't get a senior to a medical appointment on time, then Rides will work with the doctor's office to change the appointment so the patient can still use public transportation. Rides will even carry a senior's groceries from her bus seat to her house. And Jung says he's working with rural medical centers to transport stretchers in nonemergency cases, a cheaper method than using one of the few ambulances in the county.

Jung says contrary to the traditional attitude, it's OK to blur the line between human services and transportation services.

"Everybody talks a lot about curb to curb, but in rural America, there's not a lot of curbs. So you really have to be responsive to the needs of the people who are using the system. You have to go a little further, do a little more."

Those efforts won national recognition with the Transit District of the Year Award from the Community Transportation Association of America in 2000. Five years later, the Rides Mass Transit District became one of five systems nationwide to win the United We Ride Leadership Award, named after the federal government's initiative to help state and local officials develop plans that serve the special needs of each community.

Despite the recognition, however, Rides faces challenges. Jung says 70 percent of the 70 buses are eligible for replacement because they have more than 300,000 miles on them.

As president of the Illinois Public Transportation Association, Jung spoke in general about such needs around the state during the annual conference in Moline this fall. "We shouldn't always have to manage this in crisis mode, where we wait until the problem becomes onerous and then we try to solve it," he said. "We see it coming. Why not solve it now?"

The root problem is the complexity of the public transportation funding system, says Edward Heflin, manager of the Rural Transportation Assistance Center. Nine federal agencies provide funding for 62 human service transportation programs. Each program has its own rules, which means funding often determines ridership.

Heflin gives this common scenario: "There's a senior and [a] disabled bus, and they pass each other. And they each had a couple of people on there. And the legislator says, 'Why should I give you money when it looks like you've got plenty of vehicles — they just aren't full?'" 

A 2006 report by a state-appointed coordinating committee concludes that not only does the federal funding system encourage fragmented and redundant services, it confuses riders who have no idea how or where to get a ride.

Heflin and the center became part of the solution in 2004 in conjunction with a federal effort to coordinate all 62 funding programs. The state appointed the center to create an information clearinghouse designed to help communities follow a step-by-step guide for developing tailor-made public transportation systems. The goal is to broaden coverage, reduce duplicate services and frame mass transit as a social service.

"There is no reason that the senior bus and the disabled bus have to go to the same place and pick up different people," Heflin says. "Rides Mass Transit that has a 14-county system,    they mix clients all the time. It's a myth and a fallacy that different demographics can't ride together."

Al-Trans Inc., a Marshall-based nonprofit group that is trying to bring public transportation to Clark County, started bringing nonprofit and public agencies as well as private businesses together to develop a plan of action.

The hardest part is getting people to the table, says Harley Bennet, Al-Trans chairman. "We have a lot of people who just aren't getting involved in it. They just kind of think it's something that's not appropriate for Clark County."

He says perception stymies progress because public transportation is seen as a service for the needy, though coordination efforts across the state are discovering a greater need among the general population, particularly in rural areas.

Eighteen percent of Clark County's residents, or more than 3,000 people, are 65 or older. And the Illinois secretary of state's office shows 500 of them are without driver's licenses. Yet a survey conducted by Al-Trans shows half the respondents travel across county lines to receive medical care. The other half go to hospitals in neighboring Indiana.

"We have no public transportation facilities in Clark County at all," Bennet says. "No taxi cabs. No buses. The only facilities that you could call for organized transportation is for the school system."

One option is to seek help from existing transportation providers in neighboring counties. Rides Mass Transit, for instance, recently expanded to Crawford County just south of Clark County, but Jung says he doesn't want to stretch its resources too thin with no indication of how the state budget gridlock will be resolved.

There's some hope of getting more money for downstate service providers through four federal transportation grants, which used to be earmarked by federal lawmakers but now are part of a funding formula distributed through the state's transportation department. But those increases would simply extend the piecemeal approach and wouldn't patch every problem.

The average cost per ride in downstate rural or nonmetropolitan areas is $25. Not only is it expensive for seniors, but it's a challenge for agencies waiting on Medicaid reimbursements to cover the cost of serving those who can't pay. 

It's also expensive for providers to insure their buses, which now are considered at risk for acts of terrorism, says Michael O'Donnell, director of the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging in Bloomington. He adds that transit providers face the further challenge of obtaining buses with large enough dimensions to accommodate larger, newer electric wheelchairs or scooters.

While downstate and rural transportation systems face an uphill battle, Heflin says they're also entering a renaissance period. "If everybody was 100 percent efficient, and we were like robots, there's still not enough money. We are woefully underfunded on the capital side," he says. "But in the same sense, we need to prove that we are efficient. And the way to prove we are efficient is to try to work toward getting more rides to target populations for the same or fewer resources."

That means creating large economies of scale to spread the burden and reduce the risk if gas prices, insurance premiums or other regulatory costs rise. 

Such transportation coordination services will become even more important as local and state planning efforts continue to uncover more demand.  

The need will only accelerate.

There's some hope of getting more money for downstate service providers through four federal transportation grants, which used to be earmarked by federal lawmakers but now are part of a funding formula distributed through the state's transportation department. But those increases would simply extend the piecemeal approach and wouldn't patch every problem.

Illinois Issues, November 2007