By Roberta Codemo
According to the recent 2015 Sangamon County Citizens Survey, bus ridership in Sangamon County is low. Only five percent of the 576 respondents surveyed report using the Springfield Mass Transit District at least once or twice a week while 85 percent report “never” using the system.
A small percentage of respondents report improvements to bus service was a priority, with one-third reporting improvements were needed “a lot.” Of these, African-Americans were 54 percent more likely than whites (at 25 percent) to decry the need for improvements.
Frank Squires, SMTD managing director, said ridership numbers are up 4.4 percent as of May and have been steadily rising. As of July 1, SMTD eliminated a number of low ridership routes, including the Historic, Southwind, Park Tower and IDOT routes. The Historic route accounted for two percent of the total service.
One driver, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the route changes occurred because of funding cuts. “Removing routes doesn’t make the system better,” he said. “We’re still running the same 1930s routes. He thinks everything’s kosher.”
When asked if any riders stepped forward to complain about the changes, Squires said no one said anything. “The route changes were made purely for better service,” he said. “We are always looking for ways to maximize resources to create new ridership.”
SMTD operates 18 routes; 58 buses run fixed routes and 18 buses run paratransit routes. There are eight 30-foot 20-passenger buses and 49 35-foot 40-passener buses. All are handicapped accessible.
Some routes report increased ridership, while others report declining or stable ridership. The best performing are the North Ninth and East Cook routes. Squires was unable to provide exact ridership numbers.
The district employs 75 bus operators; approximately 31 are part-time and the remaining are full-time. There are 21 paratransit bus operators.
Squires will have been the managing director for three years this September and earns around $103,000 annually. Previously he worked in the investigations unit for Department of Corrections. He has served on the SMTD board for 15 years; the last five as board trustee chairman.
“I pretty much know the district inside and out,” said Squires, when asked if a transportation background was necessary in his position.
According to the anonymous driver, after the last round of contract negotiations, Squires received a pay raise and bonuses simultaneous with funding cuts. When asked about this, Squires said he received an annual raise as did all employees and denied receiving a bonus.
The fiscal year 2014 budget was $14.8 million; the fiscal year 2015 budget is in question pending legislative action. As Squires explained it, 62 percent comes from the state, 18 percent comes from local property taxes, 10 percent comes from the federal government, nine percent comes from the fare box and the remaining one percent comes from other sources like ad revenue.
Squires said the district is always looking at expanding routes and recently hired a planning and marketing person. “We have a little bit of weakness on the west side,” he said. When asked about expanding service west and south, he said many roads will not support the weight of a 12-ton bus or are outside the district.
The district is looking at expanding Saturday night bus service and providing limited Sunday bus service but this will require financing. “Buses are very expensive to operate” said Squires. There are procedures that must be followed.
“There are a lot of things people don’t understand,” continued Squires. “People don’t know what has to happen.”
At one time there was talk about overhauling the entire system. It comes down to timing. Squires would like to move the transfer station off-street and away from its present location. The additional train traffic on the Third Street corridor has become a hindrance.
“It takes too long to get where you’re going,” said the driver. Currently, some routes run every half hour; others every hour. There are some routes that change from every half hour to every hour during the middle of the day.
“The system needs updated,” he added. On the 30 minute runs, “drivers fight like hell to get back downtown.” This creates a hazardous situation.
Squires said drivers are supposed to follow the rules of the road and remain diligent and alert to oncoming road hazards. “Watching the road is number one,” he said.
The driver said morale was low and everyone was worried about losing their jobs. “It’s a scary situation,” he said. “Drivers are walking on eggshells.”
Richard Fix held the position before Squires. “We knew where we stood with him,” the driver said, who further added that Squires doesn’t listen to the drivers. “He never asks for our input.” He doesn’t understand why someone with no transportation background was hired to fill the opening.
When asked about morale problems between drivers and management, Squires inquired if this reporter regarding any morale issues witnessed during her tour. He said he couldn’t speak for the drivers but he doesn’t believe there are any. He added he is readily available and walks the facility daily and no one has ever complained to him.
There are system improvements planned. Current upgrades include a new website, new signage at the transfer station and new signs at businesses like Staples that list bus departure times to cut down on the number of phone calls to dispatch.
The district is also installing 60 new ADA-compliant concrete pads at various locations. Shoun Reese, grants/procurement manager, said funding for capital improvement projects comes from state and federal grants. The Federal Transportation Administration funds federal projects, while the Illinois Department of Transportation funds state projects.
There are also plans to install smart technology on each bus. “We are laying the framework for it,” said Tyler Orton, IT administrator. Currently, he is redoing the phone system to tie it into the bus radios so it will be easier to track buses in real time. Riders will know where to catch a bus to get where they’re going and how much it’s going to cost.
In the future, passengers will only need to scan a reloadable card that they will swipe when they get on and the fare will be automatically deducted from it. Infrared sensors will record when someone embarks and disembarks, the location and the time. “It will make it easier to use this information to improve the system,” said Orton.
The district is also looking at Google Transit, which is a trip planner which allows someone to go online and track buses in real time. “This would alleviate stress on the dispatchers,” said Squires.
He says he often receives compliments about the bus service, and riders comment on the friendliness, helpfulness and the knowledge that drivers have. “Drivers are attuned to their route,” said Squires. “The bus you take is your bus.
“The service will always be there,” he continued. “It just may be in a different form or shape.”
Roberta Codemo is a full-time freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.