Mass transit—or mass confusion?

Questions and concerns were raised at a Rockford Mass Transit District (RMTD) informational meeting Friday afternoon, Feb. 27, at the State of Illinois Building. State Rep. Chuck Jefferson (D-67) called the meeting in response to comments and complaints received by his office. More than 50 people attended, though some left before the meeting concluded.

Jefferson served as host and mediator. The RMTD panel consisted of: Rick McVinnie, executive director; Lisa Brown, Marketing & Public Relations specialist; Paula Hughes, grant specialist; Kasandra Rhymes, route supervisor; Dennis Hendricks, operations manager; and Terese Brown, operator receptionist, who was there to assist people with route information.

Also present were Rich Hunt, youth education advocate from RAMP; and Tam Malmberg and Robin Berkheimer from Illinois Growth Enterprises.

Jefferson said he was there “to act as mediator and to make sure we are doing everything we can to get the service out to you.” Each speaker was allowed two minutes to talk.

Harrell Cravion had an issue with RMTD. “Why in the world did you go all the way to Texas to get someone to design the routes, who has never been associated with Rockford, to come up with a plan that is putting people out of jobs because they can’t get there, or they have to walk a mile?” he asked. “Or some routes have been eliminated. Don’t we have people here in the city that can design a route for the Mass Transit? Why do you have to go all the way to Texas to get somebody that doesn’t live here and doesn’t know the area? It comes out of our pockets. Thousands of dollars… how can you justify that?” The audience applauded him.

Chris Lizinsky said she didn’t understand why this was happening. She worked at Wal-Mart and was afraid she would lose her job. The new routes made her nervous, and she was concerned about her safety.

Jefferson asked, “How far do you have to travel to catch the bus?” She said for now, she could catch it at Kmart. Lisa Brown of RMTD said she would have to catch the Big Loop at Kmart on Riverside.

A man said: “We usually have a half-hour wait downtown to go to the south side. On weekends from the south side, you wait a half-hour, then you catch another bus. It takes 35-45 minutes for a 15-minute trip. If you have to catch a Big Loop, you come downtown for a half hour, wait and catch the bus out to the loop, and go around.”

Charles Rounds, a south Rockford resident, was concerned about the service to Gray’s IGA on South Main. “That bus doesn’t run on Sunday. The Clifton bus has one-half-hour service,” he pointed out. “You’re not getting the same type of service as the east side.”

Lisa Brown said it might take some adjustments depending on where you’re traveling. Rounds said: “When it comes down Central to Ogilby, it stops right there. The kids have to walk over a half-mile to school. You would have to walk to Central, and on the inbound, you walk to Clifton.”

Rick McVinnie asked, “Does the bus come down Michigan now all the way to Ogilby?” He was told it does—and down Ogilby to Clifton north.

Michelle Matthews of Local 880, Service Employee International Union, is a home health care provider. She said she just lost a client of Milestone. Matthews hoped some of the routes would be changed so the client can be served by someone.

Joanne Hermeling, of Local 882, is also a community care provider. She has a client off Kilburn Avenue near St. Paul Lutheran Church by Fairgrounds Park. “As of Monday,” she stated, “I have no way of getting to her. She is the only client I have, 8 a.m. til noon. I have no way of getting back and forth to her. I was taking the School Street (bus) and getting off on her street, Acorn, and walking down Lee Street. Now I can’t do that.”

Lisa Brown said they have a new Kilburn route. Hermeling said the bus driver told her they would not be going out there. But Brown said the new No. 6 Kilburn route would take her there.

Robin Berkheimer of Illinois Growth Enterprises said she had the privilege of working with professionals from RMTD. “They have worked with us so that we know where the bus stops, what bus goes out to our agency. They have sat with our individuals. We have about 81 workers coming from our facility,” she said. She felt the routes had improved.

Brian Harding said it was hard for him. The East State bus does not go all the way out Argus Drive. They added another East State route, but it doesn’t start until 8 a.m. He had to be at work at Logli’s at 7. Also, if he has to work late, he has a problem.

Harrell Cravion liked the Kenmore bus route. It would take him out to Public Aid, and he could get the East State back. He “never dreamed they would change the Kenmore bus.” It would go up Liberty Drive and Custer. “There is no way you can walk up and go to Roosevelt,” he added.

Another man asked when the drivers were going to get training. Jefferson said, “They’re probably going to get training along with you.” The man was told that the first week, there will not be any charge to ride the bus. The bus drivers will get used to the new routes along with the riders.

Paula Hughes said she was sorry he was informed that the drivers would not be trained. Hughes said all of them are not trained on all the routes, but they will be trained to go on the routes Monday.

Jefferson said: “This is by no means written in stone. If it is not working, they will try to address it and revisit those areas and correct those problems. They have done the best they can up to this point, and they will work with you and answer your questions and concerns.”

A high school student was very upset about the long walk of about a mile to get to Roosevelt. She said even her teacher was concerned about the time and the traffic.

Jefferson added: “This is new; it’s a bit complicated, but one thing about it is that change is not always accepted easily. I’m not saying everything is going to work, but if it doesn’t, they are willing to come back and address it.”

Harrell Cravion asked, “Why do you have to go out of state to get the study done?”

Rick McVinnie replied: “Rockford Mass Transit District operates in one city. Our routes are inadequate. The current route structure has been in place forever. We do have concerns that some people have. We can run the routes but don’t have the ability to go out and see what others are doing. There are changes that are made consistently. We decided to have somebody from outside look at our routes. We did not accept their final proposal as it was drafted. We had a number of public sessions. We took the information we received from those public sessions and plugged them into the route study. The reason we went outside is because we are required to go out for bids.”

He said the purpose was “not to increase your costs. They will receive pay which comes out of our operations budget.”

Cravion asked, “Will there be shelters when the wind blows?” He cited a lack of shelters on the west side of town.

McVinnie replied, “We will be putting up more shelters.” Cravion noted that Rockford has a 20-below wind chill in winter, and “you’ve got children out there. I see, here in the city of Rockford, we don’t have any crossing patterns any more.”

Another man said some of the drivers said the routes were set up to fail. McVinnie said the drivers were invited to be part of the process a year ago. Jefferson asked, “Why don’t we give them a chance to fail and see what happens before we start blaming everybody? If it works, we should applaud them.”

Lisa Brown said, “When we first started this process, we put the sign-up sheet in the drivers’ lounge, and we had four drivers who arranged to take the time and consult with us.”

One woman mentioned that if you look at the School and Kilburn route, a lot of that service was cut out, and you have a lot of elderly people in that area.

Adam Wilson asked if this was done because RMTD wanted federal funds. McVinnie answered that there is no increase in federal funds because of any of these changes.

A woman

asked if there would be a survey after the first week. Another woman, Dina Richter, said there was another survey done previous to the new set of routes, and she was told by Shayne Mitchell of RMTD that they did the survey during the middle of the month. It was conducted only on three days when they had the lowest ridership. Richter asked why was that original survey not done at the beginning of the month when people receive important mail such as Social Security or SSI checks, or bi-weekly paychecks? These checks come on the 1st or 3rd of the month.

Paula Hughes said everybody goes to work or shopping every day, and they look at the surveys.

One man said he did not know what prompted this move—economic reasons, etc.—but for whatever reason, it is not benefiting the people. McVinnie said: “The last several years, the District has increased mileage by 300,000 miles, and that tells you how much more service we are covering. What we find is even by making these types of changes, our ridership continues to go down. The drastic changes are due to the fact that something has to change. We cannot allow the cost in ridership to continue.”

The man said: “At some time, they will have an increase in bus fares. We can deal with that. But when there are no jobs—one job… My point is that when you do something like this, you have to look at the people. You look at the needs of the people, not statistics or what our growth was last year. ‘We need to make a change and bring in more revenue.’ That’s not going to cut it. It’s what the people need… I pray it works, but I have my true doubts because I’m not stupid. This right here is very hard to read and understand [the schedule]. Changing from one bus to another bus—this is terrible.”

Rich Hunt of RAMP said they offer training to handicapped people. He was “confident we would be able to meet their needs.”

Lisa Brown also said there would be braille versions of the schedule. Hunt said they would offer help as well.

One man said the reason people were not riding was because whole areas were being cut out, and they needed half-hour service in the morning to get to work. The system needs to serve the whole city of Rockford.

An older woman pointed out that in some areas of School Street and Auburn, the West State bus used to run from Johnston to Auburn. Now there is nothing there. There are many senior citizens, and she knew of two handicapped people who would catch the bus on Central.

Charles Rounds said: “Monday, you ride the bus free. It seems like you are giving out freebies so people can’t complain. But you’re not giving anything free. It is an insult to tell people they can ride the routes with the bus drivers, and together we will learn the different routes. You need to get on the bus.”

Jefferson said: “They’re not trying to pacify you. This is a learning experience for them. All they’re saying is for the first week, it’s going to be free… Why look a gift horse in the mouth?”

After the meeting, Joanne Hermeling noted that she will have to transfer from the School Street to the Kilburn bus to get to work. Then she will have to transfer twice again to get home—four transfers a day. She asked why the $60 million was spent to train drivers from out of state instead of using local people who know Rockford better.

She also asked, “Where was Doug Scott?”

John Strandin of the Mayor’s Office informed The Rock River Times: “The mayor had another meeting scheduled at the same time. We’ve been getting some calls from people concerned about the bus system. We’ve been passing them along to the Mass Transit District. [They] did hold some other hearings previous to Chuck Jefferson’s, and they did a presentation to the City Council also.”

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