CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. — The difference is like night and day. Of the three educational bus trips to Midwestern towns organized by Columbia city officials, the final installment, a visit to the home of the University of Illinois on Friday, was the most jaw-dropping.
The disparity between Champaign-Urbana’s robust bus system, a nationally recognized juggernaut, and Columbia’s, is striking.
Riders per year: About 10.5 million
Budget: $27 million operating budget
$36 million total budget
Number of buses: About 100
Number of routes: Up to 17
Regular bus fare: $1, a yearly pass costs $60
Reduced fare: 50 cents
Riders per year: 2.2 million, 74 percent students
Budget: $4.8 million
- Transportation sales tax: $1.5 million
- Federal: $1.4 million
- MU shuttle contract: $1 million
- Miscellaneous: $900,000
Number of buses: 36
Number of routes: 9
Regular bus fare: $1.50, a 30-day pass costs $55
Reduced bus fare: 75 cents
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District will soon count more than 11 million annual riders. A recent study by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., ranked Champaign-Urbana as the eighth best U.S. metropolitan area for non-driving commuters, behind places such as Boston, San Francisco and New York City.
The Columbia bus system carries 2.2 million riders annually. Although the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area has roughly twice as many people as Columbia, its bus rides per capita are much higher.
In Champaign-Urbana, there are 17 bus routes during the week, several of which run past midnight. Service is frequent for students and non-students alike; wait times on campus typically make memorizing bus schedules unnecessary, although a 156-page, magazine-size map and schedule guide is available. Wait times can be about 30 minutes for stops farther from the center of the university campus and the twin cities.
In Columbia, buses don't run much beyond normal business hours except on Thursdays and Fridays, when they run until about 9 p.m. Buses typically run 40 minutes apart, and there is no service on Sundays.
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District had a $27 million operating budget in fiscal 2011. Maintenance, capital and administrative costs pushed its total budget to more than $36 million.
Columbia Transit’s operating budget is about $4.8 million.
Differences in state funding create the enormous discrepancy between the two budgets. The state of Missouri’s contribution to Columbia Transit is negligible, according to Transportation Supervisor Drew Brooks. The state of Illinois covered more than $17 million, or well over half of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District’s operating budget in fiscal 2011.
Under a law passed in the 1970s, the state of Illinois will cover up to 65 percent of a “downstate” transit agency’s eligible operating expenses.
“Despite the fact that Illinois has lots of financial problems, we have the best transit funding in the country,” said Bill Volk, managing director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. “That’s a huge benefit for us here.”
Like in Ames, Iowa, and Lawrence, Kan., the two previous stops on the Columbia delegation's Midwest tour, the bus system in Champaign-Urbana is funded in part by student fees. But it wasn’t always that way.
A referendum among students to create a fee to increase bus service failed in 1987. Then school officials persisted.
“One of the real reasons the university administration was interested in this was they didn’t want to build parking garages,” Volk said.
Another referendum for a one-year trial fee passed in 1989. The student bus fee has passed in every election since.
"It's important that we have the service on campus," said Jim Maskeri, the University of Illinois student representative on the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District Board of Trustees. "It's necessary just in case they want to utilize it. (Students) feel like their friends and colleagues use it, and therefore it's needed."
From 1989 to 1990, ridership increased from 2.8 million to 5.5 million after Champaign-Urbana implemented a fare-free system for students and added campus-centric routes.
Volk said it was difficult to keep up with the increased demand.
“We bought buses from all over the place,” he said.
Finding enough drivers to operate the extra buses was also a challenge.
“We still have problems getting drivers,” Volk said. “We’re paying a lot of overtime right now.”
The University of Illinois student transportation fee is $50 per semester. A referendum just passed that will increase that to $59 per semester by 2015. About 65 percent of riders are students and faculty or staff of the university, who also ride fare free, according to Jan Kijowski, marketing director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District.
More than $4 million, or about 11 percent of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District’s budget, comes from the student fee and University of Illinois administrative contributions. That’s a far smaller share than in Ames or Lawrence, whose student contributions are roughly 50 percent and 68 percent, respectively.
In a bus traveling past the Illini Union Bookstore on Wright Street, Natalie Wroughton, a Champaign-Urbana resident of 44 years, read a book while she was on the way to see her mother.
"I started riding the buses when I was 12," she said.
Wroughton doesn't drive, and she relies on the buses every day.
"Overall they do a really good job if you live close to a bus route," Wroughton said. "There's certain neighborhoods I wouldn't move into because (the bus stops are too far away)."
Lucinda Morris, a senior studying earth science at the University of Illinois, said she takes the bus to and from class and to her job at the mall.
"I think we have one of the better bus systems anywhere," Morris said. "They're pretty well on time."
Outside the bookstore, as students stood waiting for their bus, Bahareh Javadi, a senior studying architecture, praised the local biking community.
"Usually, it takes me about 10 to 15 minutes to bike to class," she said.
Javadi said she only takes the bus in the winter when it's too cold to bike.
On the same stretch of Wright Street, as students made split-second decisions to board passing buses, Michael Lopez sat on a bench next to an electronic display board that flashed approaching arrival times.
The sophomore physics major lives in one of the Pennsylvania Avenue residence halls on the southeast corner of campus.
Lopez takes a bus to and from most of his classes at Loomis Lab, about a mile and a half from his dorm.
Columbia officials, MU students and commission members were overwhelmed by the differences between Columbia and Champaign-Urbana's bus systems.
"This one almost seems like another planet," Brooks said. "The funding from the state level, it is just phenomenal."
Brooks said he noticed that ridership grows exponentially when people have short waits between buses.
"(At the bus stops), the people weren't looking at the signs," Brooks said. "We were standing there for 20 minutes. There were at least half a dozen buses pulling up, and they were all full."
David Wilson, transportation coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, was interested in the collaboration between both Champaign and Urbana public schools and the city buses.
Together, the two school districts pay about $450,000 annually to the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. In exchange, city buses provide nearly all transportation to and from school for middle and high school students who want it.
Wilson said that for this to work in Columbia, "the community has to get involved and support a model like this."
Wilson said if he were to implement a system in which students rode city buses, he would start by looking at students who live within two miles of their school. Those students currently are not eligible for district-funded transportation.
"And if that was successful, that could be a place to start," he said.
Jessika Redmond, an MU student and intern with the PedNet Coalition, said she liked SafeRides, an on-demand service in Champaign-Urbana that picks up students from the library, parties or bars and takes them home. The service runs seven days a week, through the night until 6:30 a.m.
Rose Eppensteiner, a senior at MU and a member of the Tiger Transit Movement, said she was impressed that it took only three days for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District to collect the 4,500 signatures needed to get the latest student fee increase referendum on the ballot.
MU students should be that involved, Eppeinsteiner said.
Homer Page, chairman of the Columbia Disabilities Commission, said fixed-route Columbia city buses should be as accessible as the ones in Champaign-Urbana.
"We need more accessibility to the main line transit," Page said. "The better it gets, the better it can serve people with disabilities."
Before the Columbia delegation left the land of the Illini, Tom Costello, assistant managing director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, climbed on the small bus preparing to head back to Missouri.
And although the bus system they witnessed seemed flawless to many aboard, Costello offered the day's first confession.
"We make mistakes like everyone else does," he said. "But we try really hard."