IL budget disputes forcing transit agencies to shut down or cut service

SPRINGFIELD -- As the budget impasse continues in Springfield, some transit agencies have had to completely shut down and others are making big cuts to service to try and stay afloat, while commuters are hoping something gets worked out before they lose more than their bus service.

Marietta Keller is legally blind. She relies on the River Valley Metro bus service in Bourbonnais to get around. Recently, her route’s Sunday service got cut and she fears she’ll lose it all together.

"Oh it would be horrible. I wouldn’t get out of the house. I wouldn’t have contact with anybody,” Keller said.

River Valley Metro cut her Sunday service and made other cuts to try and avoid a total service shutdown.

"We can’t just shut down. We have riders that don’t have options,”  said River Valley Metro Managing Director Rob Hoffman. "We’ve done a good job of putting away for a rainy day- we just didn’t know it was going to be a hurricane.”

River Valley Metro is one of 56 transit agencies outside the Chicago region that is supposed to receive funding from the Downstate Public Transportation Fund.

A portion of your sales tax is earmarked for the fund, and while the State of Illinois Comptroller is supposed to transfer the money to those agencies, thse transfers aren’t being made.

The Illinois Public Transportation Association says the fund is now owed $156 million dollars. The comptroller’s office says it should be able to make some transfers into the fund next month, but that will be too late for some agencies.

The West Central Mass Transit District, which serves six counties, has shut down and is now only able to provide critical medical trips.

"The sad part there is that then they’re stuck deciding which trips can we do and which trips can’t we do, and that’s not a decision any of these folks got in the business to make,” said Laura Calderon, the former Director of the Illinois Public Transportation Association.

The Monroe-Randolph Transit District has also shut down, and two others that serve 24 counties will also have to shut down in the next week or two if transfers aren’t made.

“The only way to stop this fiscal free-fall is for lawmakers and the Governor to return to Springfield and pass a balanced budget so we can fund our critical services,” said the IL Comptroller’s Office.

In the meantime, bus commuters say the budget impasse is now starting to have a very real effect on their lives. They want the state to know they’re not pawns in a political game, and that they need bus service to get by.

"I'd have no way to go to work; I'd have to quit,” said River Valley Metro Rider Edward Grein.

Transit agencies argue that the comptroller’s office has no choice in whether to make the transfers. The law requires it to make the transfer as soon as possible after the first day of each month. But the comptroller’s office argues that because of the lack of a balanced budget, it can only cover required payments right now that must be made on a specific schedule. In the meantime, service cuts and even layoffs continue.