Coronavirus recovery | Fare enough: MTD picking up speed | Coronavirus


CHAMPAIGN — Standard operating procedures, including the return of collecting fares, will return Aug. 15 for customers of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District.

“This pandemic was a landscape-altering event for us,” said Karl Gnadt, managing director for MTD. “It completely changed the way we look at ourselves and the way we operate within the community. I am not referring to just service levels, but also the way we provide our service.”

Gnadt still isn’t sure what the “new normal” will look like, but he is anxious to find out.

MTD stopped collecting fares in the spring of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic caused a shutdown for the state. In-person attendance at the University of Illinois was suspended, and much of Champaign-Urbana’s workforce did its jobs from home.

“We made a lot of changes, such as extensive cleaning, did rear-door boarding and stopped collecting fares,” he said. “It will be 18 months before we start collecting fares again. It has had a financial impact. It has had an operational impact. You name it. Across the board, it has been dramatic. There is no book on how to deal with this. It has been just flying by the seat of our pants and trying to figure it out as we go.”

Gnadt said the industry was looking for answers. In talking with a colleague in another state about the situation, Gnadt said “she said ‘Our decisions and actions made people wonder if we knew what we were doing, and to some, it seemed like we didn’t have a clue.’

“That’s a great quote, because that is exactly how we felt here.”

To commemorate half a century of service in 2021, MTD’s brand received a minor face-lift, complete with a new logo and tagline, an update to the website, a new design for 11 incoming 2020 buses, as well as refreshed uniforms, bus-stop signs and shelter boards.

“The 50-year celebration is going very quiet,” he said. “It is hard to do a celebration of any kind when there is a pandemic going on. Not only because of finances, but up until this point, nobody could gather.”

Also new this year: two 60-foot buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. A hydrogen production and fueling system will be completed this fall. The buses will be 100 percent zero emission. A $1.45 million federal grant helped fund the project. More buses are planned.

“That is a dramatic shift from where we have been for the past 50 years,” Gnadt said. “We have kind of drawn a line in the sand and are now focused on the next 50 years. This is a technological advance like nothing we have ever experienced before.”

Prior to the pandemic, the MTD averaged over 11 million rides per year. Ridership is down 65 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels, Gnadt said.

Ridership is always down during the summer months when UI students are on break. The MTD is operating on its normal summer service schedule, which means a reduction in routes.

But everything will return to pre-pandemic levels Aug. 15.

“I feel good about the future,” he added. “We haven’t settled down, though. I would love to be able to prognosticate the future, but the reality is that we just don’t know what the level of work-from-home effort the community will still be supporting. We hear a lot about pandemic fatigue, and I believe that a lot of the pandemic fatigue is people missing the interaction and contact with people they are used to back in their office setting. I’m just guessing about that, because that is the way I feel. I don’t know if everyone else feels that way. The truth is, we just don’t know.”

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