CHAMPAIGN — Enrollment increases at the University of Illinois, along with decreased student use of automobiles, is prompting the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District to look into ways to manage significantly greater bus usage.
The MTD carried 9.3 percent more riders in August than a year ago, and September ridership so far is nearly 10 percent greater than last year, said Bill Volk, the MTD's managing director.
"We'll have over 1.3 million rides in September alone. That's the first September we've ever reached that number, and it will be our third-highest month ever," Volk told the MTD board Wednesday. "I think we're handling it fairly well, but our ridership every day is above 57,000. We had five days in September above 60,000, and that's with reasonably good weather.
"We're concerned about what the wintertime will bring, and we're also concerned about maintaining our schedules."
He said he is worried that the MTD may be facing days with 64,000 or more daily riders when colder, wetter weather sets in.
For now, Volk said, the MTD will encourage students to take earlier buses to avoid congested buses. And it is able to add buses to routes as they become congested.
"And we're looking around different systems to see if we can add (old) buses" to the MTD's 102-bus fleet, he said.
But for next year, he said, the MTD may have to add more buses which also means more employees.
"I've told the board that all of this may have budget implications," Volk said.
"The interesting aspect to all of this is that the university obviously has increased enrollment a great deal over the last 10 to 15 years. But the number of cars brought to campus by students is way down. The number of rental (parking) spaces is way down," he said. "We're seeing big increases in ridership along White Street in Champaign and along Springfield Avenue in Urbana."
Large, articulated MTD buses are serving student apartment complexes on North Lincoln Avenue in Urbana, Volk noted.
"Those kids aren't driving. Ten years ago they would have been driving," he said. "And there have been a number of articles in national publications about how students are not getting their drivers' licenses right away. And there are a lot more foreign students here now."
In fact, the Urbana campus enrollment is 43,389, up about 500 from 42,883 last fall. The number of international students is up 759, from 8,648 last year to 9,407 this year.
Fifteen years ago, in 1998, the Urbana campus enrollment was 36,303, and international students made up only 2,731 of the student population.
"There are any number of reasons our ridership is up," Volk said. "Gas prices are high. Parents may be saying that it's costing them enough to send their child to school, let alone proving a car."
Also at Wednesday's MTD board meeting:
— Board members agreed to add Sunday service on the Lavender Route serving the Dobbins Downs and Garden Hills neighborhoods in northeast Champaign, beginning Dec. 22. The new service, which will cost about $75,000 for a full year, will begin Dec. 22. It will run from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cecile Ann Lindy, a Dobbins Downs resident who has been regularly attending MTD board meetings since 2011 and pushing for the Sunday service, was elated with Wednesday's decision.
"I see a lot of people standing out and waiting for the bus on Sunday, not knowing that we have none," she said. "I thought this would be a big help to the neighborhood. People still need the bus to go to work, to go grocery shopping, to go to church. There's a need for this."
The Sunday Lavender service will be assessed in a year, board members decided.
— Board members learned that the Illinois Department of Transportation has signed off on an approximately $1.1 million contract to install solar panels atop the MTD garage at 803 E. University Ave., U. When completed next year, said MTD managing director designate Karl Gnadt, the electricity generated by the solar panels will be enough to supply the garage and give the MTD an energy credit from Ameren. "During the winter months we can cash in those credits for power, so we should see a dramatic reduction in our outside energy use and costs," he said. The state will pay 65 percent of the costs of the project, with the MTD covering 35 percent.
— Volk said the board will be asked to approve a 4.9 percent increase in its property tax levy at its October meeting. But, he added, "I don't expect the levy to be anywhere close to that, maybe half of that."
— The next round of MTD annexations probably will include the Sawgrass and Boulder Ridge subdivisions in west Champaign, Volk said. Public hearings will be in late November or early December with a possible board vote in January.