In recent years, communities across the United States have approved ballot initiatives to levy a tax to support public transit. Fortunately, in many ways, Illinois is ahead on public transit. The state provides strong support for transit, and mass transit districts across the state levy a sales tax or property tax to support their operations. In 1968, Springfield voters approved formation of the Springfield Mass Transit District (SMTD). Compared to many similarly-sized communities, Springfield has been ahead in terms of funding public transit. Today, SMTD operates with a budget around $20 million annually. In comparison, college town Bloomington-Normal has a much smaller transit budget, at $11 million (Source: http://www.connect-transit.com/about/performance_dashboard.asp).
With such strong local support for public transit, discussions about how to use public transit to stimulate revitalization are underway. SMTD is in the midst of a three-year improvement of service, beginning with smartphone applications, GPS tracking, and online trip planning for riders.
Another potential improvement is a high-frequency route along Eleventh Street. Such a route could serve as a shuttle between downtown and UIS, connecting new student housing to the more suburban campus. Ridership would likely be strong with a frequency of four trips in each direction per hour. With buses departing both downtown and UIS every 15 minutes, riders would have no need to remember schedules.
Many in our community have recognized the urban planning blunder of locating the university outside the urban core. In the 1960s and 1970s, the common wisdom was to locate large developments on the outskirts of a community. New sites would allow for large parking lots and a “blank slate” for buildings. Unfortunately, this results in the lost opportunity of 2,000 residential students not living downtown.
A high-frequency shuttle route between downtown and the UIS campus will connect these students to downtown in a convenient, easy-to-understand way. However, the expansion could yield additional opportunities. The shuttle route would travel by the South Town district. Transit-oriented development along Eleventh Street could be spurred. The recently razed Honeywell site could be redeveloped as a mixed-use loft-style community.
This shuttle service would also serve as an important bridge between Springfield’s east side and downtown. Such a bridge will be vital if the 10th Street rail corridor is expanded, as proposed.
The service would also serve as a bicycle connection between downtown and the soon-to-be constructed Stanford Avenue crosstown bicycle corridor. Bike racks on SMTD buses could be utilized by cyclists between downtown and the new corridor. When completed, the Stanford Avenue corridor will connect the Interurban Trail to the Lost Bridge Trail, allowing bicyclists to ride from Chatham to Rochester.
Rather than seeing transit as a taxpayer expense, our community needs to retool it to serve as an economic catalyst. Connecting the community in a more cohesive way is vital to our ability to compete with other communities for economic growth. A high-frequency shuttle route from downtown to UIS would attract Millennials to Springfield, and help spur a new entrepreneurial spirit.