I am, as ever, optimistic that the people of Illinois will one day wake up and realize that our current Governor is as much of an idiot as our previous Governors were corrupt. In one example of this idiocy (can you spell ‘patronage’), Governor Rod changed the system from electing Trustees to appointing Trustees, and my award for favorite appointee is Trustee Niranjan S Shah. Such changes have consequences.

The Trustees, led by Mr. Shah, it seems, has decided that the Champaign Urbana Mass Transit District is ripping the University off, as well as killing and maiming an occasional student. The MTD provides, at the students’ request, around 8 million rides per year in the Campus core and community. By the way, if you are into hair-raising roller coaster rides, take the front seat of the Quad as it wends its way around the campus, down Matthews street, a narrow thoroughfare choked with poorly parked cars, construction vehicles and jaywalking students chatting merrily on cell phones or oblivious to all with iPods jammed in their ears; down Goodwin to the south housing complex and back down on the west side of campus through Campus town avoiding bicycles, pedestrians (or not), and other vehicles. On a good day there are dozens of near-misses.

Nonetheless, they feel that someone (dare I say a minority owned Chicago transit company) can do it safer, cheaper and better. It must irk these Blago-appointees to no end that the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign trough is not available for their snouts. The Trustees, at Mr. Shah’s insistence, has issued a RFP to study the possibility and report back to the Trustees on the feasibility of the University running its own bus service. Perhaps Mr. Shah was too involves with obtaining lucrative contracts for his Globetrotters Engineering Corporation to remember that the University previously provided such a service, which they relinquished with alacrity when the MTD offered to take over the service. Or perhaps, he was not around when such services were not available at all and 40,000 bicycles congested the Campus area with far less traffic control than the current transit system.

The MTD charges the University, on the basis of a three year contract, an annual transportation fee proportional to the student enrollment. This was $3.5 million in 2006 and $3.1 million in 2005. For this amount, students can hop on a bus anywhere on campus without even showing a pass, and by showing their student ID ride anywhere in Champaign Urbana without further charge. This fee is approved by the Student Senate every contract renewal period and they are free to discontinue at the end of any contract period. The previously mentioned Quad runs every 5 minutes. Given that the campus is several miles north to south, the ten minute interclass period is insufficient to walk even a quarter of this distance unless you happen to be an Olympic-class runner. Students feel that this is a good service.

How good becomes more evident when you consider that operational expenses are subject to a 55% reimbursement through the Downstate Operational Assistance Grant, issued each year to downstate (e.g., not Chicago) transit districts. In 2006, the MTD received $10.8 million in operating assistance. That $3.5 million U of I service costs around $6.4 million. In addition, the MTD operates about 90 vehicles, (costing $300,000 each) and provides fuel, maintenance, cleaning and storage – a significant capital investment. In addition, the MTD provides StopWatch signs which are tied into GPS receivers and computers on the vehicles and which inform waiting passengers of the arrival times of the scheduled vehicles; cell phone text message service to provide route schedule data directly to cell phones; Internet route planning and scheduling; shelters; and emissions reduction and bio-fuel technology to keep the environment clean – more expensive capital assets.

Now starting from a clean piece of paper, the notional U of I transit service would have to establish a desired level of service and provide for the acquisition of capital equipment and vehicles, operate the service and collect the offsetting revenue to fund that service. Since the U of I is not an established transit district, the Downstate Operating Assistance Grant is not available to assist in the funding of the service. This alone increases the revenue requirements. Add to that the depreciation of the vehicles, shelters, equipment, and support structures (MTD: $2.6 million in 2006) and some amortization of the initial capital outlay and you have a service costing a minimum of $8.5 million/year. If this cost is borne by the student population as it is now, the transportation fee becomes $112/semester verses the current $46/semester (assuming 38,000 students). Ah – what is a government plan that doesn’t double the cost to the user? In fact, it would be all but impossible to acquire the vehicles and equipment in a timely manner, develop the campus operating experience, and deploy a system. The immediate result would be a significantly lower level of service.

But when President White, The Chancellor Richard Herman, and the Provost all suggested that this perhaps was not a good idea, Mr. Shah, in an open session of the Trustees, commented that this was not a serious attempt a developing a transit system, but merely a negotiating ploy. Let’s see – how does that work? Oh yeah. Piss off the MTD by being critical of the service, issue a RFP, the results of which show that MTD is charging the U of I a fraction of what the service costs, and use this to bludgeon the MTD when setting service fees for the next contract period. Students remember – The Trustees are here for you!

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