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Rural transit ridership surges

By Dave Hinton/Rantoul Press -- When CRIS Rural Mass Transit District began serving residents of northern Champaign County, officials figured it would take two years to reach the ridership levels of 1,000 passengers a month. It didn’t take nearly that long – only a few months.

“I guess the need has been far greater than we predicted,” CEO Amy Marchant said.

There was a definite need for a rural public transportation system, said the woman who serves as CEO of CRIS Healthy Aging Center of Danville, which operates the service.

Total ridership has skyrocketed from 514 in May to 1,178 in August, the latest figures available.

Of that total, the majority are for medical appointments (643). Other cited needs are shopping (93), socialization (124), employment (164) and education (23).

Marchant said several factors appear to figure into why so many northern Champaign County residents are needing public transportation.

“There’s more people without (their own) transportation,” she said. “If they are unemployed they might not be able to maintain a vehicle or they may have one and it might not be reliable enough to get back and forth.”

Marchant said CRIS will take riders anywhere they want to go in the county.

According to Marchant, CRIS defines northern Champaign County as the Rantoul Township High School district. People of all ages may ride. It also provides senior citizen transportation to all areas of rural Champaign County, to nursing homes in the county and to the VA Illiana Healthcare System in Danville. Prices depend on distance and driver time.

CRIS uses a curb-to-curb service, meaning the driver is able to come to an address but cannot come to the door to assist the rider.

“They have to be able to get to the vehicle,” Marchant said. “It’s a small portion of our ridership that isn’t able to board themselves.”

CRIS officials originally envisioned needing only four vehicles to serve the region, but has had to go to eight vehicles because of the greater-than-anticipated ridership numbers. It is borrowing eight vehicles from Vermilion County.

“For just the Rantoul, Ludlow and Thomasboro area, we are using seven (vehicles),” Marchant said.

The CRIS director said rural mass transit is a different animal than urban mass transit.

For one thing, it’s not like the movie “North by Northwest” in which Cary Grant waits for a bus in the middle of nowhere. There are no bus stops and no regular routes in the rural areas.

“The vehicles are dispatched all over,” Marchant said. “Geographically … what we’re hoping to do is increase our ridership and to encourage people to schedule their ridership to serve as many people as possible.”

Marchant said the type of service is called “demand-response.”

Riders are asked to schedule their appointments around times when buses can be available.

“As we get to know the riders better, we are able to move closer to that,” Marchant said.
“The area that we serve is so vast” and buses can’t be everywhere.

Scheduling ahead of time is important, she said.

“They might call and say, I need a ride on Tuesday at 2 p.m., but we might be at capacity. We (might say) we’ll have one at 11 that morning,” she said.

The CRIS CEO said the number of trips to the Rantoul area varies.

“It could be one time (a day); it could be seven times,” she said. “We just take them in order. We prioritize (the trips).”

CRIS employs 12 part-time drivers and two dispatchers, one of whom is full time.

A contract for CRIS services was approved by the Champaign County Board in April 2010, but service had to wait for federal and state funding. Rides within the north part of the county cost $2 one way while trips to Champaign-Urbana or other areas of the county are $5 one way for the general public and $2 for senior rides age 60 and older, or the disabled.

Ridership boards 12- and 14-passenger buses. CRIS had provided the same type of service in Vermilion County for 25 years and was chosen to provide the Champaign County service because of its experience, Marchant said. Call the CRIS Rural Transit services in Champaign County for reservation or more information at 344-4287.

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