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Cheaper C-U bus pass helps low-income riders

CHAMPAIGN '“ A $60 bus pass gets Steve Burgess out of the house and into the world.

To be perfectly honest, "house' isn't entirely accurate: The unemployed restaurant manager lives in a men's shelter. His newfound access to public transportation is meant to change that.

"I don't know how to describe it,' says the Champaign resident, his MTD annual pass little more than a month old. "It's like having a broken leg one day and then being able to run (the) next.

"It gives me access to the entire city '“ to medical appointments, to look for jobs and just to visit my family.'

The busy schedule is a recent development and a dramatic change from even a year ago. Then, Burgess's tight budget dictated how often he climbed onto a Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District bus. As a resident of the Times Center, a transitional housing shelter in Champaign for men, he walked most places.

The District's annual bus pass, then $235 for an adult, was simply out of reach, he says. But that was last year and before a 74-percent price drop.

Social services workers describe the MTD move last summer to drop its annual passport to $60 as transformative, saying it broadens opportunities for low-income residents who on public transportation. For the MTD, the change has dramatically expanded sales and strengthened its appeal outside of the University of Illinois community.

"Since lowering the price effective July 1, 2009, we have sold approximately (2,850) annual bus passes,' says MTD Director of Marketing Jan Kijowski, pointing to a figure more than double the number sold the previous fiscal year. With four months left in this fiscal year, that gap is expected to widen.

"We see it as an unqualified success,' she says. "We're probably the only ones lowering prices.'

The decision by the MTD board early last year runs counter to planned fare hikes for transit riders in many other municipalities. In January 2009, the Chicago Transit Authority added $132 onto the price of its 12-month pass, with last-minute negotiations between the authority and the state of Illinois forestalling a move to raise it again this year. The CTA was less successful in blocking service cuts.

The MTD, which says it carries as many as 10 million passengers a year,  is no less dependent on government support.

For the 12 months ended June 30, 2009, the corporation took in $6.2 million in revenue. Its operating expenses, however, came in at just under $22 million. The state is expected to cover as much as $16 million of the deficit, bumping up its funding by about $3 million compared to the previous year.

But support from a state government facing its own $13 billion budget deficit is uncertain.
That harsh reality, say industry analysts, means Illinois municipal transit operators will need to grow passenger revenue. But MTD's move to lower pass prices has already pinched its revenue stream instead of expanding it.

"With the price decrease, we project a loss of about $150,000 to $200,000 in fare' revenue, Kijowski says. "A 100 percent of that [revenue drop] is attributable to the introduction of the cheaper bus pass.'

The decline isn't as steep as earlier estimates, according to the District's assistant managing director, Tom Costello.

Still, the MTD may be robbing Peter to pay Paul, as riders bypass the fare box, opting instead for now-affordable bus passes. That switch pays off for high frequency users like Burgess.

"I'm on a bus about six times a day,' he says.

The 52-year-old is looking for a job that would allow him to move out of the Times Center. His pass has made that job search easier.

"Before, getting tokens for the bus was very difficult and I used to have to walk,' Burgess says. "Now I can get out to look without worrying about that.'

Based on a one-way bus fare of a $1, the MTD calculates that someone using the pass five days a week to get to and from work will see it pay for itself in about six weeks. With the old price of $235, a pass-holder would have taken half a year to reach that break-even point.

The difference is "night and day' for his clients, says Jason Greenly, director of the men's shelter Burgess calls home.

"What it's done has brought the possibility of a pass within reach,' he says. "Raising that $60 is now doable for low-income people in a way that the $235 wasn't.'

Greenly and others on the social services front line are now trying to raise money to buy bus passes to help clients get the transportation they need for work and support services.

Burgess is, in fact, a recipient of one of two donated passes handed out by the Times Center this year.

"It was tough deciding who to give it to,' says Greenly, whose facility shelters as many as 70 men at one time, some for as long as a year.

Greenly's dilemma may speak to just how difficult it remains for most of those residents to scrape together $60.

"I've been unemployed for almost two years with zero income,' says Neil Weislow, also looking for a job. "I don't have $60, so I walk.

"Today, I walked an hour and a half to apply for a job in Research Park and then an hour and half back. It's a long way, but I've done longer.'

The MTD does not offer installment plans for its annual passes, something both Greenly and Kijowski acknowledge still makes it cost prohibitive for many.

"We (MTD executives) have talked about' introducing installment plans, Kijowski says, "but there would be additional administrative costs and let's be honest, some people wouldn't pay.'

Greenly expresses the same sort of reservations, at the same time pointing to the reduced-fare tokens the MTD sells to social services agencies. They, in turn, make them available to clients. The MTD also offers free access to the elderly and the disabled who have "Dash' cards. That program will continue despite a move by the Illinois General Assembly early this year to reduce subsidies. On April 21, the state Senate quashed that legislation, maintaining funding levels.

While most state social assistance is focused on housing and food supports, transportation '“ which some consider a third essential '“ is not specifically addressed.

The omission may be especially problematic in a Champaign-Urbana, where a trip to the nearest food store often involves a 10-15 minute bus ride.

Burgess is all too aware of the logistical challenges of getting around the community he's called home for 47 years.

"I just hope the pass will stay the same price,' he says, acknowledging the possibility he'll have to buy one next year. "It gives me more freedom.'

The MTD has no definitive plans to bump up the price of Burgess's ticket to ride, Kijowski says. Still, that doesn't rule out a hike: A board decision mapping out prices for the fall will likely come August, Costello says.

By Vernon Jones/ For CU-Citizen Access

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.