Official: MTD's estimates inflated
But bus service says district pays for access others don't get
CHAMPAIGN — A Champaign school board member is accusing the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District of "gouging" the school district in its cost estimates for busing students to the proposed Central High School site north of Interstate Drive.
As the district prepares to renew its contract with the MTD for this school year, John Bambenek also called on administrators to look at other ways to bus students in coming school years.
"I understand this year our options are limited, but next year whether it's another vendor or some other arrangement, I would like an option other than the MTD to provide bus service for our children," Bambenek said at Monday's school district budget hearing.
In a report on the long-range costs of the new school site, the MTD had estimated that twice as many students would qualify for bus service to the new high school because of its more isolated location, in comparison to Central's current home on University Avenue. That would require the transit district to extend its routes and add more buses, at an estimated cost of $700,000 annually. And the MTD said it would have to acquire six more buses, at a cost of $4.2 million.
The school district buses students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and contracts with MTD to bus middle school and high school students who qualify for bus service.
It currently pays MTD just over $315,000.
According to Bambenek, 797 more students would be eligible for busing at the Interstate site, on top of the 2,588 eligible now. The district could buy a $72 annual bus pass for all of them and still come out ahead — a total cost of $243,720, he said. Even providing a bus pass for all 9,600 students in the district would cost about $691,200, less than the MTD's $700,000 estimate, he said.
"Simply buying those kids bus passes would be far cheaper, and they would get more service," he said. "I have a hard time viewing this as anything other than fleecing the district, and I don't really feel a compelling need to take money out of the classroom to feed the rapacious gaping maw of the MTD."
MTD Executive Director Karl Gnadt said he hadn't talked with Bambenek about the costs, but reiterated that they were rough estimates and could change as more information about the site emerges.
"We knew that there's a margin of error in there," he said.
He noted that there are no other "ridership generators" near the new school site, and the MTD had no plans to add service there, barring the new high school.
Bambenek said several MTD routes run fairly close to the school site, at Market Place Mall and at Wal-Mart on Prospect Avenue, and one that already reaches up to Interstate and Neil Street.
But Gnadt said that line doesn't go right by the property, and one route isn't enough to transport the hundreds of students who would need to get to school. At the current Central site, multiple routes run directly in front of the building, he said.
"We're bringing hundreds of kids into the school and they don't all fit on one bus," Gnadt said. "We can't just say, 'Jump on board this one, once-an hour or once-a-half-hour bus that goes within a half-mile of this location.' No one's going to be satisfied with that level of service to get their kids to school."
Bambenek said it's the MTD's job to acquire the buses and provide the routes needed to serve its customers.
"If kids need to get there, it's MTD's job to get them there," he said. "If they don't want to provide that service, that's something between them and their customers."
Gnadt said the school district is "not just any other MTD customer," requiring service for hundreds of riders. What the school district pays for is access — adding extra buses to public routes and diverting routes to get kids to school, he said. Other customers don't get that service, he said.
Under the contract, MTD sends extra buses in for school start and end times and runs special shuttles, mostly for high school marching band practice, Bambenek said.
The costs involved in transporting Unit 4 students are higher than the contract reflects, Gnadt said, contending that both Urbana and Champaign save money by contracting with the MTD rather than trying to transport students themselves. MTD buses run throughout the day, rather than just before and after school, which helps students who have after-school activities or have to get to jobs or other sites for technical training, he said.
The state also kicks in a portion of the transportation costs, so the MTD charges the districts only for local costs incurred, he said.
The new contract with MTD will be up for discussion at the Sept. 8 school board meeting, Bambenek said.