Rockford Mass Transit District driver Melinda Overturf greets passengers as they travel through Rockford and Boone County. Currently, all RMTD fares have been suspended in light of COVID-19.

After 50 Years, RMTD is Still Going Places

Millions of Americans use public transportation to get to jobs, appointments and more. For Rockford Mass Transit District (RMTD) access for everyone remains a top priority, 50 years and running.

RMTD’s new hybrid electric buses are rolling out, in accordance with the district’s sustainability plan.

Public transportation is an essential service in the world’s major metro regions, but even in smaller markets like Rockford it’s depended upon to get people from point A to point B. Since 1971, Rockford Mass Transit District (RMTD) has been providing this critical link, and to celebrate, the district is preparing a yearlong celebration. 

“Each month we will highlight different areas of our business,” says Lisa Brown, marketing and public relations specialist at RMTD. “In February, we highlighted our anniversary itself. In March, we had Transit Driver Appreciation Day.”

For Earth Day, on April 22, RMTD plans to promote its new fleet of hybrid electric vehicles – a real glimpse into the future of mass transit. June brings a celebration of the district’s auto technicians. The summer also brings a community service event, and the holiday season promises a special United Way campaign and Giving Tree program. 

Before RMTD, public transportation in the Rockford area was a privately owned mishmash of services. Much as the streetcars and trolleys of an earlier generation, local bus service was in danger of going under. It’s not necessarily a profitable industry, says Brown.

“What would happen was a company would buy a transport service as an auxiliary company, run it the best they could, and when one was losing money, they would sell it off,” says Brown. “It was a cycle that went on for several years throughout the turn of the century into the 1950s and 1960s. It became very unstable. Transportation was not allowed to grow as the community grew because of the industry’s instability.”

The situation wasn’t unique to Rockford. Cities across the state had rallied behind Illinois’ Mass Transit District Act when it was enacted in 1971. The law allowed for public transportation to exist as a public corporation – essentially, a publicly owned body.

“Rockford and other cities, like Peoria and Springfield, took this back to their cities and adopted the necessary ordinances because the law gave them a steady funding stream,” says Brown. “It allows them to focus specifically on providing public transportation.” 

In Rockford, RMTD provides bus service throughout the community, supported in part by fares and in part by state, federal and local subsides.

“Because of the provisions of the Local Mass Transit Act, we get 65% from the State if we can secure a 35% local match,” says Brown. “The 35% can come from a variety of sources including federal assistance, income from our farebox revenue and funding.” 

Over the decades, RMTD has evolved in many ways.

“We’ve been able to keep up with the growth of our city,” says Brown. “We had night service and then we did not. But, we were able to bring back night service and sustain night service since 1995.”

The 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act brought more change for RMTD, as the fleet was upgraded for those who needed mobility assistance. Brown says the district has been at the forefront in serving people with special needs.

“With each purchase of new vehicles, RMTD has worked to implement the latest technologies for disabled riders,” says Brown. “We have been working closely with organizations like RAMP and the Barbara Olson Center of Hope over the years and have learned how to offer a service that is helpful and vital.”

Recent accommodations for persons with disabilities include state-of-the-art wheelchair lifts on hybrid electric vehicles. RMTD also recently introduced a mobile fare app that makes paying hands-free.

Accessibility at RMTD is about more than who rides. It’s also about where they ride. Over the past few decades, the district has been adjusting its routes to better reflect where people want to go. Where routes before were limited mostly to the city’s core and major shopping areas, today RMTD serves the west side, south side and north side, with routes extending east past Lyford Road into Belvidere.

Eyeing the future, RMTD is also reviewing its carbon footprint and pursuing ways of reducing the service’s impact on the environment. It has the added effect of operational efficiencies, too. All new vehicles are hybrid electric, in accordance with RMTD’s sustainability policy, and Brown says there’s additional investment going into alternative fuel technology.

“The purpose of this policy is to remind RMTD and our community that we are committed to our environment and the quality of life in our community,” says Brown. “We will use these principles as our guide when making decisions about our fleet and our service.”

The new hybrid electric buses are easily identifiable because they sport the district’s new brand and logo. The periwinkle-and-black buses have a slight physical difference from the older models because there’s a battery cell sitting on the roof.

The commitment to sustainability extends beyond the buses and into RMTD’s facilities, as well. Recent renovations to the downtown Transfer Center include LED lighting systems, updated insulation and a solar water heating system.

“Green space was added with the addition of planter boxes and standalone planters to mirror the look and effect of the City’s planters along East State’s downtown corridor and to provide an urban oasis feel in the middle of our property,” says Brown.

In the past 50 years, RMTD has also shown itself to be an economical choice for many people. According to the American Public Transportation Association, riding public transportation can save, on average, more than $816 per month.

“These savings are based on the cost of commuting by public transportation compared to the cost of owning and driving a vehicle,” says Brown. “Everyone can potentially benefit from the cost-saving measures of public transportation.”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the district has temporarily suspended fares. When it goes back to charging, the cost will be $1.50 each way with free transfers, says Brown. RMTD offers a variety of discounted passes, as well.

“If you don’t want to have the expense of a car or can’t drive, you still have options,” says Brown. “We are far less expensive than using Uber for everyday commutes.”

With COVID-19, RMTD’s ridership has changed, but Brown is optimistic things are turning around, in part because most riders don’t have an alternative means of transportation. Currently, each bus can carry a maximum of 14 people, with shuttle buses available for overflow passengers when demand is high.

“We hope to get back to regular service soon,” says Brown. “Due to COVID, the route changes RMTD had to implement and just the general lockdown have led to a significant decrease in ridership. This is truly unfortunate because prior to COVID, we were showing small but modest gains in ridership.”

The world is changing, and Brown says the team at RMTD is continually evaluating how to provide the best possible service. Community support is essential on many fronts.

“We would like to continue to be a vital part of our community, as much as we are now, if not more,” says Brown. “It would be lovely if more people would choose public transportation. Or, at least choose public transportation a couple of days a week to help the environment, their pocketbooks and our service. I think heightening the awareness of how vital we are and what we can do for our community is going to be our goal now and into the future.”