Volk Looks Back On Forty Years Running CU Mass Transit
By Jim Meadows
Volk retired this summer as managing director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. His retirement ends a 40 year stint that saw the district grow from a bare-bones service to one of the larger mass transit systems for its population size.
Bill Volk (who we should note is a long-time contributor to WILL) was in college when the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District was formed to replace a privately operated bus system. Four years later, he was hired as the district’s managing director.
Volk says Champaign-Urbana’s bus service started with strong community and business support. “But I’m not sure that the goal necessarily was the goal necessarily was the same that it is now,” he says. “Sustainability was not a buzzword. Mobility was not a buzzword. I think they wanted, for the most part, to provide a basic public service, so that people without any other means of transportation could get around.”
Fast-forward forty years, and Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit has grown, and its greatest growth involves the University of Illinois campus. The district now provides more than 12 million bus rides a year, and Volk says some 70-75% of those rides are taken by U of I students and employees, funded by a student fee and other university funding.
“We do get criticized from some of the local folks that we’re here just because of the university, and the students just ride one block or two blocks or six blocks”, says Volk. “But I think a lot of people forget that the university is the economy here in the community, and about 33,000 of those 43,000 students are renting apartments. They’re paying property taxes.”
The CUMTD’s growth has sometimes met resistance. For instance, there was the proposed fixed-guide way, or tram system, proposed a decade ago. The expensive project never got off the ground, but Volk thinks it could still help Champaign-Urbana if it were built today. And the transit district’s gradual expansion of its territory is regularly resisted by residents who don’t welcome the property taxes that come with it. Bus service to Savoy, just south of Champaign, came only after lengthy negotiations with that village. And opponents in southwest Champaign formed their own opposing mass transit district, which dissolved after failing in its goal of stopping the CUMTD’s expansion.
Volk defends the expansion, even while acknowledging his critics. “It’s certainly understandable”, he says. “People don’t want to pay taxes, and they’re on the edge of town. And they’ll complain about empty buses, and that’s certainly true. But, when we have a bus at the end of a line, we’re not going to have many people on it. And just because live on the edge of town, doesn’t mean that, in my view, that they can prevent other people from accessing it. That they somehow have veto power over their neighbor who does want to access transportation.”
Despite opposition, Volk says attitudes about mass transit have evolved, since he first arrived in Champaign-Urbana 40 years ago. “It used to be, and particularly when I first got here, most of the governmental units were concerned about moving cars”, says Volk. “And now, I think there’s more a concern about moving people and mobility.
And also, Volk adds, safety. He says that’s an increasingly important concern, as vehicles, bikes and pedestrians share transit corridors.
The CUMTD has a new managing director now. He’s Karl Gnadt, who joined the agency in 1995, after a stint as director of Danville Mass Transit. In retirement, Bill Volk still works part-time for the CUMTD on special projects … including plans for a bus facility in downtown Urbana, and the possible expansion of the Illinois Terminal building, downtown Champaign’s bus and rail station.