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A look at DeKalb's consolidated bus system one year later

DeKALB – It’s 12:36 p.m. when a DeKalb public transit bus pulls up to the stop in front of Target on Sycamore Road on a snowy, brisk Thursday afternoon. For 50 cents, we hop on the Route 18 Huskie line and join four other passengers, one of them snoring, slumped over in her seat.

Rheyce Williams, 25, a recent Northern Illinois University journalism graduate who’s just come from the dentist in Sycamore, sits opposite. He says his mouth is still numb from the work he’s had done, as he heads back to his home along State Street in DeKalb.

“The experience has been pretty positive for the most part,” Williams said of his time on the bus, which he said he uses a few times a week.

It’s been almost a year since NIU and the City of DeKalb consolidated their public bus systems. The $10 million operation could bring in over a million riders by the end of the year, said Marcus Cox, transit manager for the City of DeKalb who’s been working in the industry for 11 years, and began as a bus operator for the Huskie Line. As of Nov. 8, over 788,000 riders have used DeKalb County’s public transit system, and brought in $67,137 in fare revenue, Cox said. Since consolidation, residents across DeKalb County have access to bus transfer points, more lines, and more frequent stops than before. A second shuttle to the Elburn train station which has access to the Metra and stops in Cortland, was added to Route 12 in October. A new line, Route 19, was added for access to south DeKalb and major employers near the interstate at Park 88.

Williams pulls the rope hanging above his head to signal to the bus driver that he’d like to get off early (a perk of the choose-your-own-stop system, though it doesn’t work that way for pick-up).

After a stint downtown and a stop at the Egyptian Theatre, the bus now has 11 people on it. It heads to NIU campus.

“Lately it’s been getting better, a lot better,” said Tom Beegle, who takes the bus around DeKalb and Sycamore daily. “You don’t have to stop at Target and trade buses.”

Maps and route times are available online or via a mobile app called ETA spot, though if you’re new to the system or community, the maps can be confusing.

Cox said he thinks people might be surprised at how many rides the bus system services in a year. He pointed to public transit systems in Bloomington and Champaign as examples of where DeKalb would like to be, and said consolidation offered “a fresh canvas.”

“While ridership quantity is important, it’s also more important to us that we’re allowing them the access to those areas that they need,” Cox said in an interview at his Public Works Department office Friday. “In some sense, we’re a few years behind in terms of where a transit system should be, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction now.”

DeKalb’s public transit system is managed by Cox and his team, but each line has their own operators (around 100 in total) and maintenance crew. At any given time, there are up to 35 buses (10 on standby) operating around the county during the day, including the Huskie Line, TransVAC, and the city’s paratransit side, which provides medical deliveries and rides for people. For an average 80-person-capacity Huskie bus with a 120 gallon tank, it can cost around $360 to fill up the tank.

According to city documents, after the 2000 Census, the DeKalb-Sycamore area was designated an urban center, which meant the region became eligible for grants from the Federal Transit Administration, and the Downstate Operating Assistance Program through the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Using those funds, the city contracts with the Voluntary Action Center and Transdev Services Inc. According to the fiscal year 2020 budget draft, funds are outlined as follows: $5.9 million from DOAP grant, $2.1 million from NIU, $1.6 million from the FTA grant, $60,000 in fares from the Huskie Line, and $50,000 from VAC.

Back on the bus

It’s 1 p.m. at the Holmes Student Center, and following the advice of fellow passengers, a quick transfer from a Rt. 18 to a Rt. 17 Huskie line is not only free, but also heading to the next destination: Walmart. The bus is full by now, with students, and shoppers.

Shawn Hindenburgh, 34, of DeKalb, is heading to the new Aldi, but started at Kimberly Drive, also transferring at NIU.

“You don’t have to walk. They drop you right off at the front door pretty much,” Hidenburg said, who also uses the system daily. “The buses are here to help you. It takes a while to get used to each route, maybe three of four times for each route, but once you get used to it it’s super easy.”

After NIU campus, Walmart is the second busiest stop so far, and the bus arrives at 1:16 p.m. for another (free) transfer.

Lynn Roller, 50, sits on the bench next to a cart full of new purchases and waits for the Route 21 line (TransVAC). She lives in Sycamore and her car just broke down, so she’s forced to rely on the one bus that heads to Sycamore. She also sometimes uses the dial-a-ride option for people with disabilities. Route 21 is a one-hour round trip, and once you’re on it, you need to ride it for the full hour if you want to catch a ride back to where you came from.

Roller said she’s new to using public transportation and finds the system a little hard to navigate.

“I know that unlike DeKalb, they only have one bus,” Roller said. “It’s just something I have to do.”

Another woman waiting next to Roller asks if we’re here to “fix the bus system,” and said she frequently takes Route 18 and 21, but the latter is hard because of the hour wait times.

At 1:24 p.m., Rt. 21 pulls up to Walmart, and 7 people climb on.

Next is a 1:31 p.m. stop at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital. The bus switches drivers at Farm & Fleet. Two people with a child climb on, then at 1:53 p.m. we encounter one of the few bus stops we’ve seen all day with a bus shelter. At 350 Grant Street in Sycamore, one person climbs on.

It’s a noticeable pattern in Sycamore, and stops at Bill Johnson Blvd and the Sycamore Post Office add only one person each to the total. It’s 2:06 p.m. now and four people join at the DeKalb County Courthouse, followed by another single person at 2:08 p.m. from the Sycamore District 427 Administration Center.

When asked if lower ridership in Sycamore is due to fewer people using the bus because there’s only one available with long wait times, Cox said it’s hard to tell, but said they are looking at adding a second line for Route 21.

At 2:30 p.m., we arrive back at Target.

Cox said there are continued improvements in the works, too: they’ve been working with Google to unveil an add-on for those who use Google maps that will allow the user to tap into transit maps and schedules and plan your route before you go. They also are looking into adding more maps and schedules to waiting shelters near bus stops, and introduce a more concentrated public awareness campaign for users.

“We can do better and we will do better,” said Cox.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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