MTD: Bus cost could double with Interstate Drive school site

MTD: Bus cost could double with Interstate Drive school site

CHAMPAIGN — A new Central High School on the northern edge of Champaign could double the cost of transporting students on city buses and require several million dollars worth of new vehicles, according to preliminary calculations by the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District.

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The school district pays the MTD $315,516 annually to bus students to and from school, and that figure would rise to an estimated $700,000 if the new high school is built at Neil Street and Interstate Drive, MTD Managing Director Karl Gnadt told The News-Gazette on Thursday.

That site would also require six new buses, as there are no MTD routes serving that area currently and more students would qualify for bus service, Gnadt said. The estimated cost is $4.2 million, though a large chunk of that could be offset by federal grants.

The figures were prepared by the MTD for an interagency study underway on the long-term costs and implications of the two primary school sites studied, at Neil Street between Olympian Drive and Interstate Drive, and at Spalding Park.

The report is still being completed, officials said Thursday.

Gnadt emphasized that the figures are "just a spitball, back-of-the-envelope" estimate, in part because high school district boundaries will change under a redistricting planned in the next few years, before the new school opens. It also doesn't take into account possible changes in school start times, which could also mitigate costs.

"None of this is meant as a criticism. I am completely sympathetic and understanding of the school district and where they are in the balancing act that they're trying to successfully complete. They're in a tough spot, and I get that," Gnadt said. "These are just numbers. It's just reality."

School Superintendent Judy Wiegand said the figures are preliminary, and could change with redistricting and other factors as the project moves ahead.

For instance, the school district is considering adding to its own fleet of buses to meet some of the cost, she said.

"Those are all things that we're investigating and making sure that we compare those costs and go in with the most cost-effective way," Wiegand said.

She was reluctant to comment further, as she had not yet seen the figures or the cost assumptions behind them.

There are several reasons for the extra costs with Interstate Drive, Gnadt said:

— More students would need to use the bus, so more vehicles would be required. With Central's current location at 610 W. University Ave., more students live near the school and don't require busing, he said.

"We have a greater area and distance to cover," he said. "We're carrying more students."

— The current location sits on or near existing city bus routes, so the school district shares the cost with MTD — paying only the incremental cost of diverting buses a block or two to Central or adding another bus to the route.

— There is no service to the Olympian Drive site, and the MTD had no plans to add it in the near future, Gnadt said, so any service would fall to the school district to cover, he said.

"We just don't have any ridership generators up there, outside of the school," he said.

Gnadt said the costs at Spalding "are not going to be significantly different from what they are for the current Central site," as it, too, can be mostly accommodated with existing city routes.

Who would pay for the new buses? "That's the million dollar — actually that's the 4.2 million dollar — question," Gnadt said.

Typically, the MTD applies for federal grants that pay 80 percent of the cost of a new bus, and either local or state funding covers the rest, he said. But if those resources have to be used for six new buses, it will cut into the money available to replace other aging buses, he said. The MTD has about 33 buses "at the end of their useful life right now," he said.

School board member John Bambenek said cost figures are "in the ballpark of what we were expecting" and have been built into cost projections for the new high school.

He said redistricting would reduce those costs — for instance, if a student in Savoy is sent to Centennial instead of north Champaign. Redistricting likely won't be done until 2018, when the new school would open, he said.

He also said the added cost could be offset in part by the $194,000 the district expects to save if the Family Information Center and other administrative programs are consolidated at the current Central building.

Gnadt conceded that the figures could change "pretty dramatically," though he doesn't expect the costs to go down much.

The goal is just to provide the school district with information to make a sound decision, he said.

"If the Olympian Drive site turns out to be the site, I'll be behind them," he said.

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MSJ66 wrote on August 01, 2014 at 8:08 am

This whole new school process and "plan" has got to be one of the worst least thought out, unprepared for things I have seen. I sure hope everyone else feels the same and votes a resounding NO to the referendum. The costs for this are going to keep going up, as will our taxes to pay for it, well beyond what they are stating publicly. Also, from what I have seen with the MTD, another of the unaccountable ever increasing tax requesters, they are already figuring out how they will translate this school issue into an increase in the taxes we all pay for an underused(other than the U of I) bus system. Therefore, we will have 2 parts of our tax bills raised and the school board will state that their school "plan" issues didn't have anything to do with an increased assessment from the MTD.

shortgirl wrote on August 01, 2014 at 3:08 pm

I agree that this process seems scattered and disorganized but "underused bus system"? You clearly have not paid attention at the masses of people standing at bus stops throughout our community. And I'm not referring to those on campus. Drive through downtown Urbana sometime and see just how many ride the bus throughout the day. Drive over to the west side of Champaign and check it out. Or head north to the areas around the mall.  Ridership is hitting record highs this year and seems to increase annually. And no, I don't work for MTD, I'm just an aware resident.

SaintClarence27 wrote on August 04, 2014 at 11:08 am

Agreed. The attempts to discredit the bus system only undermine his attempts at argument.

787 wrote on August 01, 2014 at 8:08 am

Did ANYONE on the school board think about this issue?   Anyone?  Anyone?

This Unit 4 School Board is starting to look every bit as bad as the Champaign Library Board.

jwr12 wrote on August 01, 2014 at 8:08 am

I'm much more positive about MTD than MSJ66, but I agree with him about how this report -- combined with the other story in today's paper about how a regional planning "impact study" won't be ready until too late to inform the election -- show that this decision is not yet fully thought through.  I know the School Board has been working hard.  But I'm a little worried that considerations other than transportation dominated their attention for too long.  Yet transportation is no small issue: it's a huge issue, for quality of life and cost issues.

Perhaps the School Board should not place this on the ballot, but should wait until all the thinking has been done.  It's too important not to get right.  Just because we've been thinking about this for a long time doesn't mean it's thought through, and getting impatient won't change things.

pattsi wrote on August 01, 2014 at 10:08 am

Adding to these potential tax increases because a school north of I-74 will stimulate sprawl in that area, this will mean a need for a park(s), more infrastructure to serve the growth, roads and road maintenance, etc. All of these use tax dollars--this is referred to externalities, which are rarely if ever, part of any discussion.

Citizen1 wrote on August 01, 2014 at 9:08 am

We can't afford the pension costs for all of these additional public employees let alone the cost of new buildings.  What planet are the school board members on anyway?

whatithink wrote on August 01, 2014 at 10:08 am

THe MTD gets whatever they want, so just let them decide where to put the new school

C in Champaign wrote on August 01, 2014 at 10:08 am

"If the Olympian Drive site turns out to be the site, I'll be behind them," (Gnadt) said.

Of course he will! When has there EVER been a time that the MTD took a pass on an opportunity to add routes, raise rates, increase taxes, annex new property, or buy new equipment? EVER?

New subdivision? Annex it, tax it, and overserve it with routes it doesn't want.

10 more students on campus, bump local taxes to support new busses, routes, an driver salaries instead of asking sudents to approve fee increases.

New school? New routes, new busses, hell, I'll be suprised if they don't propose a light rail line to get sudets there from downtown.

The MTD will milk this for all it is worth.


SaintClarence27 wrote on August 04, 2014 at 11:08 am

A light rail line would be awesome.

justthefacts wrote on August 01, 2014 at 11:08 am

I find it very interesting that all of the naysayers on the subject of using the Interstate Drive site for a new high school will not, or more likely can not, propose a more feasible solution. Please, rsp or pattsi, etc., identify a centrally located site that will cost less to develop (including so-called external costs), not require eminent domain, and allow for future growth. Could it be that anything that costs money will be unacceptable to some folks? Could it also be that it is much easier to sit on the sidelines and criticize than it is to actually have some responsibility for solving the problem of outdated buildings and a growing and increasingly diverse student population.

pattsi wrote on August 01, 2014 at 11:08 am

I have identified two on many occasions that would cost less when all externalities are taken into consideration. Plus both suggestions open up many more education collaboration throughout K-12.

justthefacts wrote on August 01, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Pattsi, which two are those?

pattsi wrote on August 01, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Bristol Park and the intersection of Bradley and Neil, all four corners with ped crossings. None of these will take eminent domain, would be economic development stimulus, integrates educational possibilities, creates missing connectivity between downtown Champaign and Market Place, regenerates an area, walkabout and bikeable, on bus routes that exist, etc. Then, of course, with ingenuity the present Champaign Central can be expanded. Think as if we are land locked. What would we be doing but for the fact that previous BOE made absolutely no efforts to land bank around the present Central. And pushing the envelop even further negotiate with CUPHD to move into the hub of the community near the transportation center and use that land along with the land that could be obtained that contains the bankrupt apt complex behind the CUPHD venue. For heavens sake the HS could have been built on the land now covered with the giant Kraft trucking facility. And that is almost next door to Parkland.

AreaMan wrote on August 01, 2014 at 1:08 pm
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It makes me mad when I hear the "eminent domain" argument bandied about -- it does not require eminent domain to acquire adjacent properties, it requires foresight to purchase adjacent properties at market rates, and time to accumulate them as the owners' desire to sell comes to pass. (Note: Urbana has executed this plan very successfully!) Due to lack of foresight from the School Board, time is not on our side, and it's more difficult to come up with solutions.

I think the community has offered many creative solutions, but they have fallen on deaf ears as the school board seems quite intent on building a facility with lavish athletic fields and buildings, and having them all on one campus to minimize inconvenience for the staff and teachers of the school district.

I find it incredibly short-sighted to place the school in a location where it is virtually impossible to walk or bike to for the vast majority of the district's students. In the post-recession era, people (and especially high school students) are more sensitive to the costs of gasoline and transportation, and are choosing to engage in active transportation methods that have less negative impact on our environment and a positive impact on our health and well-being, not to mention wallets.

Is the school board even listening?

rsp wrote on August 02, 2014 at 6:08 am

Is the school board even listening?


SaintClarence27 wrote on August 04, 2014 at 11:08 am

Love the photo.

rsp wrote on August 01, 2014 at 3:08 pm

The school board has refused to consider the idea of three high schools. That would take the pressure off both Central and Centennial. A new high school could be at Spaulding and Central could be a magnet school.

They had the idea to tear down Judah Christian but the gym and the new part are only 15 years old. No thought was given to if they could remove the old Lottie Switzer and build the rest of the school on the front of the property to cut costs. By having three high schools they would be able to build a smaller building.

Finally, they don't have to use eminent domain. They can phase the projects in as land and money becomes available. I don't like being manipulated by people using my money. I've studied enough how questions are asked to get the answer you want. Their first surveyed questions suggested people liked Spaulding better. So they changed the way they asked them to get the preference to be for Interstate. Also their numbers don't add up. The costs of operating the school out there versus within the city are a lot higher.

And just wait, within a couple years they will ask for millions more to rebuild Edison, Dr. Howard, South side. All on new sites.


jwr12 wrote on August 01, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Response to demand for suggestions from the writer above, who said all the nay sayers do is criticize:

Alright, here's an idea: remodel the existing central to be a good academic facility for the current population; build / share new athletic fields as necessary on another site; land bank the interstate drive site, and if population grows to the point where a new school is necessary, build a smaller school there.  Yeah, there are inefficiencies to running three schools instead of two large ones; but there are also inefficiencies and educational consequences to having large, inaccessible campuses whose big purpose seems to be athletics.

Share vocational training with Parkland.

There's a lot to be said for small, academically oriented schools.  I believe Uni has a pretty good reputation, and it doesn't sit on 80 acres or have a new building.  Stratton does an amazing job with an academically disadvantaged population, and while it has a new facility, it's nothing that Central couldn't become. 

Frankly, I would rather my children go to the EXISTING Central than be bussed way out of town to Friday Night Lights.

justthefacts wrote on August 01, 2014 at 4:08 pm



Uni High is an academic academy/college prep school that does not have the diverse programming needs of a public high school. A fair comparison might be a public high school in a similar community, perhaps Springfield, Peoria, Decatur, Kankakee, Bloomington/Normal, etc..

One of your principal complaints seems to be the cost of athletic facilities. My perspective is that extra curricular activities, including athletics, are essential to having an engaged, enthusiastic student body receptive to classroom instruction. I realize that not everyone agrees with that opinion. My experience parenting 6 high school students leads me to that conclusion.

Your ideas merit consideration but in the end I think the logistical, adminstrative, and financial complications will lead you back to Interstate Drive. For example, shared vocational instruction with Parkland appears attractive. The implementation of that, however, would require additional Parkland staff, potentially the mixing of 14 year old high school freshmen with older college students which could be problematic, and of course the need to travel from Central to Parkland and back. All of those issues are significant.

I believe that the Interstate Drive site will prove to be an excellent decision.


jwr12 wrote on August 01, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Fair enough. But while I recognize that Uni High is a selectively chosen population, that doesn't mean that a smaller school can't work for other students.  And here I do think Stratton is a fair comparison.  I also think that you can bus students to extracurricular activities as necessary, or at least you shouldn't build your whole school in a location that is disadvantageous in other respects just so that that segment of the population, which is far from everyone, that is on a sports team won't be inconvenienced.  I'm sure Uni's facilities allow for great extra curriculars in other respects. I'm also sure that being downtown and near things like the library, city hall, downtown business, the Virginia Theater, etc., would allow other kinds of opportunities, if used creatively. 

I don't object to the expense of the athletic fields.  If I vote against this initiative, this will, I believe, be the first time I have ever voted against a tax increase.  I believe in higher taxes in principle. What bothers me is how certain visions of what a school "needs" to be seem to be driving us to a location where we will all have to do a tremendous amount of driving.  And that makes me think the wrong questions are being asked and the wrong priorities are being established.  (And, I should say, that even though I'm happy to have higher taxes, I want them to be spent wisely.  Building a school that involves an unending commitment to huge travel expenditures does not seem to me to be wise.)

So, with all due respect, I reject the idea that our population is such that we need a large, suburban campus, or that you need lots of athletic programming and school specific facilities for every sport to have the school of the future.


Mr Dreamy wrote on August 01, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Pattsi said:

What would we be doing but for the fact that previous BOE made absolutely no efforts to land bank around the present Central. For heavens sake the HS could have been built on the land now covered with the giant Kraft trucking facility. And that is almost next door to Parkland.

Central High school sits on the Champaign School site. Which BOE should have land banked, 1910, 1920?

Kraft was there first. Parkland used to be downtown Champaign before the present campus was built. 

rsp wrote on August 02, 2014 at 6:08 am

Do you know how land banking works? All these years they could have been buying properties around Central as they became available, just like Urbana has chosen to do around their high school. That requires having a board with vision. I don't think we've ever had a board with vision. The current one just wants to see how much debt they can run up. All they know is "other people's money".

just_wondering wrote on August 03, 2014 at 4:08 pm

There's a pretty decent school in the area if you're fed up with Champaign ...


Sid Saltfork wrote on August 04, 2014 at 12:08 pm

The same advertisement as on the other "most commented" article regarding Champaign's new school selection.  You must be on the Mahomet Boosters Group, or sell real estate.

Have the kids walk, or bike to school; and cut out the swimming pool, athletic fields, etc. from the budget.

Gyaku67 wrote on August 05, 2014 at 9:08 am

The process is working as intended. The school board has considered multiple locations, which they should, and through analysis and projections have decided the Interstate Drive location is best. There is no consipiracy. There is no "agenda."  Just because you don't agree with the location doesn't mean the process didn't work. Some of you probably store guns and food in an underground bunker for the coming doomsday. Always thinking "they" are out to get you.

And again, nobody has found a realistic and workable chunk of land in "central" Champaign. Sure, some people think they've come up with alternative solutions but the key word here is realistic. "We can use this land at this intersection, buy 25 houses, put half the school underground and then create tunnels to "ship" students to school, therefore eliminating the need for busses." Fantasy world. Completely unrealistic.  

Get real people. Interstate Drive makes sense. Finding this many acres is hard. My guess is it'll work out just fine. This is a once in every 50-75 year process and if we're going to do it, let's do it right. That means a complete school with the necessary amenities. There's no need to half a$$ it.

SaintClarence27 wrote on August 05, 2014 at 3:08 pm

For $150 million, they could build a six or seven story Central on the current location complete with parking IN THE BUILDING.

rsp wrote on August 05, 2014 at 6:08 pm

The first mistake was starting from "we need big fields for our sports teams" and they bought land out there before they did anything else. They didn't start with what are the educational needs of the students. So many of the ones who go to Parkland take remedial classes because our schools aren't cutting it. Do you really think a big new school is going to fix that? The school board thinks more kids will play sports. They will have more programming. How are they going to pay for the new programming? Raise taxes next year? And the one after that? There's more schools to build.

Gyaku67 wrote on August 06, 2014 at 10:08 am

1) These bussing costs were already included in the original cost estimate of the school. This article simply gives more details of what those costs might look like. It's not like this is a new expense that nobody thought of.

2) The $150 million isn't for just the new high school but also for the much needed renovations of existing schools, like Centennial, which is bursting at the seams. Unfortunately, schools don't last forever and have to be replaced or renovated. And that costs lots of money.

3) I don't want to pay higher taxes anymore than you do. But the reason our taxes in Champaign are so high is mostly due to the fact that our 2 largest employers don't pay property taxes. The U of I and Carle. And our employer base isn't nearly diverse enough. Our taxes shouldn't be comparable to suburban Chicago but they are. Small town living, big city costs: Champaign.