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Waste Watch: A Ride on Your Dime Part 1
The Springfield Mass Transit District spends tens of millions of dollars every year to run a transit system that struggles to get buses just half full--and you, the taxpayer, are footing most of SMTD's funding.
ABC Newschannel 20's Vince DeMentri investigated how much money SMTD brings in from its riders. Last year, it barely made enough money to pay for fuel for just half of its buses.
Vince and one of our photographers rode five different buses on random days and at random times.
On a Friday morning, the ride started off with 20 people. Ten minutes into the ride, half the riders--all students--got off at Lanphier High School. By the end of the route, six riders were left. That was the busiest bus we rode.
We rode two mid-morning and afternoon buses. They never had more than 10 people at one time, and one bus was half-empty halfway through the trip.
The historic bus gave us and two other people a tour of the Lincoln sites.
A Saturday bus started off with six passengers. Less than halfway through the trip, there were just three.
"I don't see many people hopping on right now," one rider said. "It's just three of us are on the bus."
We asked bus rider Dennis Burt what he would do if he didn't have the buses.
"I'd be trapped in my home," he said.
Burt said he does not have a car. That was a common theme among riders we spoke with on the buses. But that's a small sect of the overall Springfield population.
If you crunch the SMTD's own data, this is what you come up with.
- From 2010 to 2012, just 8 percent of the SMTD's budget came from the fare box.
- Projections through 2016 show exactly the same 8 percent revenue.
- More than 90 percent of SMTD's budget comes from federal, state, and Sangamon County taxes.
Clearly, there is a need for mass transit here. But does it need to be this large?
"From everything I've looked at, it appears that taxpayers are paying for a service that, at least in Springfield, is a failure."
That's the statement we posed to SMTD head honcho Frank Squires. After a pause, he replied.
"I've got your answer," he said. "You ready for my answer? I don't believe that the service for SMTD is a failure. We have around 13,000 seats available every day, plus or minus the size of the buses in service, and we serve about 7,500 to 7,900 people every day."
According to SMTD's own data, if it averaged 7,500 passengers a day Monday through Friday, there would have been more than 1.9 million riders last year. If they averaged 7,900 riders a day, that would have put them over 2 million in a year.
Their own stats show that in 2012, they serviced 1,870,000 riders--and that includes Saturday service.
All told, there were nearly 4 million seats available for the year.
Squires said SMTD has no concrete research that breaks down who they cater to, nor does it have research that tells them how to increase ridership. But Squires has hatched his own plan to get more people to ride the bus: by showcasing their buses during special events, like the downtown Christmas bus.
"Start people to look at it differently and say, 'Oh, it's there to ride, and I'll start to use it,'" Squires said.
"That's the plan?," we asked him.
"That's one of the ways we're using to bring the buses out," he said.
Taxpayers are being hit three times to pay for the SMTD. In 2012, the budget was $12.6 million. Roughly $8 million came from state taxes, $1 million from federal taxes, and $2 million from taxes you paid if you live in Sangamon County. Another $130,000 came from other tax revenues.
In total, that means a system used by a minority of the population is more than 90 percent paid for by your taxes.
After two years of flat ridership, 2012 showed a slight increase. This year, taxpayers will be buying the SMTD $3 million worth of new buses, and spending nearly $2 million to equip the fleet with GPS and a mobile phone app so riders can keep track of where buses are.
Watch Vince DeMentri's interview with Frank Squires in its entirety.
Watch Part 2 of this special report.