Request for bus service reignites conflict between districts
CHAMPAIGN — After a brief lull following a court ruling that favored neither side, Champaign-Urbana's transit war is heating up again.
This time it's over a request from the new Champaign County YMCA and the Windsor West Apartments complex, both in southwest Champaign, for more bus service.
The problem is, the properties are in the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District, which does not offer bus service, and just outside the much larger Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, which does.
The apartment complex already pays the larger MTD $8,000 a year for limited service.
"The problem long term for us," said C-U MTD director Bill Volk, "and I'm not talking two to five years but 20 to 50 years, is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to start contracting with folks individually because (the Champaign Southwest's) district takes up a large area. The whole concept of public transit is to give service to an entire community, not just those who can afford it."
The YMCA has not contracted for service although its director, Mark Johnson, said that the lack of bus service is the top complaint among its customers.
Edward Vaughan Jr., the chairman of the Champaign Southwest MTD board, said the larger MTD should help the YMCA by running more buses down Windsor Road, which is a few hundreds yards north of the YMCA.
"The CUMTD is supposed to be serving the citizens of Champaign," Vaughan said. "So how are you going to get these people to this facility that is supposed to be for the whole community's benefit? I think it would be darn sure correct to get people there, yes. Can the Southwest District do it? Of course not. We don't have enough money to pay one bus driver's salary."
The Champaign Southwest district, which was formed by voter approval in 2006 to block the expansion of the larger MTD, gets all of its revenue from an annual property tax levy of $39,000. It has $51,227 in its treasury.
"Is it our responsibility to go into Champaign and pay to bring those people into a facility in our area, or is it their responsibility to see that they can get them here? Are we responsible for getting Champaign residents and bringing them into our district?" Vaughan asked. "There is some dual responsibility there, but I think it is much more on their part, with a $42 million budget versus a $39,000 annual tax levy."
He said the larger MTD should "transport them to our boundary line (the south side of Windsor Road) and we'll see what we can do from the line. They can transport them to Fields South Drive and Windsor. That's in their district."
That, said Volk, is the nub of the problem.
"That statement by itself indicates the problem of two mass transit districts," he said. "When you have artificial lines in transportation that just creates a problem. That's why we have an interstate system that connects the whole system. It wasn't something that Indiana built and then it stops at the state line and then Illinois decides what they want to do."
Even if the YMCA situation is resolved, Volk said, "this is going to come up again. This is not the only thing that's going to be built out there where Southwest is going to say, 'Folks want to go out there so you should provide the service.'
"It points to the basic problem. We have to have revenue to provide service to folks. This just highlights the basic flaw in having two mass transit districts in a small community."
Vaughan said he urged representatives of the YMCA and Windsor West to attend the next meeting of the MTD board.
"The squeaking wheel gets attention," he said.
"I don't know how our board will react to this thing," Volk said. "In the past, our concern has been the long-term aspect. There may be a short-term solution, I don't know. But in the long term, the existence of two mass transit districts is a problem."
He also said he was "amused" by the suggestion that the MTD increase service to the YMCA, which is on the fringe of its service area.
"Then we'll be open to criticism that our buses are empty," he said. "Vaughan is suggesting that we offer more service to the Y because they want more service and then they'll criticize us because the buses on the edge of town will be empty. All of our buses on the edge of town are empty. It's just the nature of the beast."
Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal of a Champaign County Circuit Court decision that found that the two mass transit districts could operate simultaneously. That was followed by a private meeting among officials from both districts that later was described by Vaughan as "very cordial," although nothing resulted from it.