The distinctive CityLink buses are a common sight on the streets of Peoria today, which is just the way CityLink General Manager David Braun likes it. The company was formed three decades ago when it became apparent there was a need to be filled in the city. "On April 21, 1970, the Greater Peoria Mass Transit District (GPMTD) was officially created by unanimous vote of the Peoria City Council. Peoria City Lines, Inc., a private operator of public transit services in the Peoria area, ceased operations entirely on June 6, 1970, due to a worsening financial situation caused by decreasing patronage and increasing operating costs."
This predicament would have left the Peoria area without public transit if CityLink-and city government-hadn’t stepped up. "A voter referendum was passed June 16, 1970, enabling the GPMTD to levy a property tax. The district purchased the transit property of the previous operator and retained First Transit, Inc. to manage the system. GPMTD also contracted with the newly created East Peoria Mass Transit District to provide transit service in that area," Braun said.
Twenty-five years after restoring public transit service, the GPMTD again found itself in a poor financial situation brought on by a reduction in federal operating subsidies, as well as continued increases in operating costs and city growth requiring service, Braun said. In 1995, the district again proposed a referendum to the voters to increase its levy, and the referendum passed with a four-to-one margin.
A different roadblock popped up a few years later. "In 1999, the district found it didn’t have any identity in the community. Although it had operated as GP Transit since the 1970s, the name didn’t mean anything to anyone, nor did area residents associate the name with the transit service. In 2000, the district changed its operating name from GP Transit to CityLink, and changed its colors to a more modern style," Braun said.
Currently, CityLink’s regular fixed route services operate Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Braun said. "We serve seven communities in the Peoria area with 18 routes. During the peak periods (6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.) we offer service every 30 minutes, with hourly service during middays and all day Saturday. Late night service also offers regular frequency to our passengers until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 10:30 p.m. on Saturday."
In addition to the fixed route service, CityLink also offers a variety of other services. "This includes paratransit services for people with disabilities (CityLift), billboard advertising on buses and benches (Peoria Heights only), historical trolley tours throughout the summer from both Harp & Thistle and the Riverfront Visitors’ Center, and ’park and rides’ to all major area concerts and events," he said.
Braun said CityLink has grown as the community and its needs have grown. "We recently expanded our night service based on the needs of the employees and employers in the area who operate second and third shifts. Access to transportation is a critical issue in employment, health care, and daycare, and CityLink is working to ensure access is available. Since the inception of the district, we’ve grown and receded a number of times due to financial and market conditions."
As with many industries, Braun said the transportation field experiences changes with each new administration. One of the most striking changes to the industry was the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was mandated by the federal government. "The act required us to have services that mirror the operating characteristics of the fixed route service for people with disabilities, but is fully accessible to them and provided on a demand responsive basis. Our existing service is comprised of 19 small lift-equipped vans and carries more than 400 passengers per day. While initially seen as a negative by the industry, the requirements introduced us to a market that was under served, and a market for whom public transportation could make a significant difference."
Braun said there are many misperceptions of public transportation in general and CityLink in particular, including the myth that CityLink is a city department or a private company. "Neither of these is true, but it’s easy to understand why this perception exists. The Greater Peoria Mass Transit District is a separate unit of government that encompasses the City of Peoria, the Village of Peoria Heights, and West Peoria Township. It operates as a business by charging a nominal fee for services, and selling advertising as part of its core business."
He also pointed out the mistaken belief that CityLink makes money at $1 per ride. "Revenue from operations represents only 15 to 20 percent of the total revenue for the district. Charging any more may reduce the attractiveness of the system and would lead to service reductions. We’re also mandated to provide half-priced fares to seniors and people with disabilities, among our other mandates."
Finally, Braun said the myth persists that CityLink is only beneficial for the segment of the population who rides the buses. "CityLink services benefit the entire community, whether they use the bus or not. It improves the local economy, the safety of our roadways, the environment, reduces reliance on fuel, and improves the quality of life in the area. It’s an economic catalyst for the community. For every $1 of local money invested in public transportation, $9 is returned to the community directly from other funding sources. That money is turned over in the economy a number of times for an untold benefit. This is quite a deal for the community and should be considered as a valuable asset."
This issue affects how the company has marketed itself in recent years. "In the past we presented ourselves as a service for those individuals who lack other transportation options. Over the past three years, since changing our name to CityLink, we’ve been involved in a campaign to focus attention on our ability to be an economic catalyst in the community and how we offer the freedom of mobility and access to those who utilize our services. This re-positioning of our services has caused many in the community to take a second look at CityLink-and what role we do-and can potentially-play in the community."
Braun said one of the best benefits of using CityLink is the positive environmental impact. "For every passenger mile traveled, public transportation emits 95 percent less carbon monoxide than automobiles. Proven in studies time and time again, taking cars off the streets improves air quality and traffic flow. A full CityLink bus removes 40 cars from Peoria area roadways, which represents fuel savings and makes the streets safer for those who do need to drive."
The company has been focusing much of its attention lately on the new CityLink Transit Center, which Braun said will have something for everyone. "It has an indoor, climate-controlled waiting area with open ceilings and a view of the buses as they enter the canopied bus bay area. The facility will also include public restrooms. The designated bus bays, which allow the buses to stop in the same location each time they stop at the center, offer an increased convenience to passengers and allow seniors and riders with visual disabilities to know where their bus will be when they need it."
Other amenities include a retail outlet so passengers can purchase discounted fare passes and tickets; historical displays showing public transportation’s rich 130-year history in Peoria; concession services from Parc including soda, coffee, sandwiches, and ice cream; a security staff; functional and tactile art pieces under the canopy that will serve as bike racks; and a possibility that the center will be a Peoria Charter Coach origin point or destination for trips, allowing people to use CityLink to travel worldwide.
What’s drawn a lot of attention, however, is the $6 million daycare center located in the new facility. "The daycare center, which is designed for up to 80 children and is operated by the YWCA, will be located adjacent to the facility and will allow passengers a convenient drop-off for their children on the way to work. Lack of transportation and lack of daycare are the most cited reasons for not being able to work. This combined center not only assists passengers with young children, it also opens a labor market for employers by solving these two problems," Braun said.
Braun said future changes include addressing the transportation needs of the community during the most disruptive parts of the I-74 project. "In addition to our regular fixed route service, we plan to offer ’park and ride’ services where needed, as well as van pooling and carpooling options. We hope to introduce these programs in this fall."
Another transportation option they’ve been considering is a water taxi, he said. "With the emphasis of development along the Illinois River over the past several years, there’s an opportunity to link those developments with a water taxi. This service would not only be an alternative way to commute, but also an enjoyable way to visit all of the new destinations along the river. The area’s growth offers challenges as well as opportunities and rewards, and we feel lucky to be a contributor to such a vibrant community structure. We’ll continue to assist in growth, development, and quality-of-life issues in the area." IBI