Fiscal worries force MTD to mull fare hike

CHAMPAIGN — With uncertainty over state funding, health care costs and proposed service changes, members of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District board face their toughest budget decisions in many years.

"It's going to be more difficult to figure things out this year than in other years. I had some very tough budget years long ago, but certainly not in the recent past," said MTD Managing Director Bill Volk, who has headed the bus system since 1974. "There are just a lot of uncertainties this year."

With the signing of the federal continuing resolution, the MTD knows it will get $3.2 million in federal funds, but state funding can be anywhere from a 10 percent increase to a $2 million cut, Volk said. The MTD also faces a $250,000 to $300,000 increase in health care costs next year because employees working more than 30 hours a week come under the federal Affordable Care Act.

And proposed service improvements, including more frequent service to west Champaign and the Stephens Family YMCA in southwest Champaign, could cost as much as $700,000.

Volk suggested a number of other changes Wednesday that could affect next year's MTD budget, including:

— Requiring a greater employee contribution toward health insurance costs;

— Eliminating all unscheduled overtime;

— Reducing the number of schedules printed;

— Increasing rates for bus advertising;

— Hiking the cost of an annual pass from $60 to $72;

— Eliminating all free bus transfers and instituting a new, monthly pass at a cost of $15.

He said the MTD board would have to decide on all the budget issues by late June.

One idea not yet under consideration, Volk said, is increasing the base fare.

"Our fare is a dollar. We still make change, but if we go to $1.25 or $1.50 that just becomes messy and slows down boardings. We could go to $2 and push everyone to the $15 monthly pass. That could be an option as well, I guess," he said.

Service improvements under consideration include year-round, 15-minute frequency "hopper" service on the Green Route all the way to Country Fair Shopping Center. That also could allow for improved, 30-minute regular service to Plastipak, Horizon Hobby and other employers in west Champaign and to the YMCA. Those areas now are served by "demand-response" van service. That change would cost an estimated $470,000.

Other possible route improvements include evening, Saturday and Sunday service on both the Lavender and Grey routes.

"Obviously, we've got a lot more ridership, and we think that moving out to Country Fair would be a good idea. I'd love to be able to do the hopper all year round," he said. "The increased frequency in our case is a big deal, but it's a big gulp to do that."

Also Wednesday, the MTD board agreed to begin the process of annexing the 72-lot Prairie Meadows subdivision, south of Old Church Road in Savoy, into the mass transit district.

"This is an area that, under our agreement with the village of Savoy, is eligible for us to annex," he said. "The philosophy is that everybody in the urban area should contribute to the system because there are benefits derived either directly or indirectly by the service."

The annexation process, which must include a public hearing, will begin later this spring and will be the first of several proposed MTD annexations this year, Volk said.

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