JOLIET – As a community organizer for the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living, Sam Knight has made it his life’s work to fight and improve services for people with disabilities – including himself.
That’s why the 45-year-old Crest Hill resident with cerebral palsy is bracing for a “marathon” of a fight in Springfield over the coming months as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and a Democratic-controlled Legislature craft the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The only spending plan on the table right now is the one Rauner presented last week – one rife with deep budget cuts in several areas of state government, including a $127 million reduction to public transit.
That accounts for about 4.4 percent of the Regional Transportation Authority’s $2.9 billion operating budget, according to a budget summary sheet from the governor’s office. The RTA distributes state aid to its three arms: Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority.
On Knight’s radar is a proposed $8.5 million reduction to services for riders with disabilities.
“It’s scary, but it’s also exciting. We need to become educated and do something about this together. We can’t wait until the 11th hour to start fighting this,” Knight said minutes before stepping onto a Pace bus early Monday morning that takes him to work at the Center for Independent Living on Jefferson Street in Joliet.
“We have to start fighting today to prepare for what’s coming,” he added. “It’s going to be a long fight.”
Loss to Pace
Pace – which oversees all paratransit services for a six-county region, including Will County – has an annual budget of $172.2 million. The transit agency would lose $8.5 million – or a nearly 5 percent cut – under Rauner’s spending plan.
Such budget cuts are potential threats to transit services in Will County – including Pace’s Call-n-Ride service, which Knight uses daily to get to and from work.
The suburban bus agency’s Call-n-Ride service – although confined in western Joliet by Plainfield Road and Larkin Avenue to the north and east, and Jefferson Street and Interstate 55 to the south and west – can connect riders with main routes and drop people off at destinations within those boundaries, Knight said.
The fare is $1.75 one-way. The reservation-based, shared-ride service is for people with and without disabilities, he said. Other services for people with disabilities include Pace’s paratransit program, which requires eligible riders to reserve rides at least a day in advance.
Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said agency officials have “not yet had the time to fully analyze how the proposed cuts to transit funding could impact” the budget, but noted the agency is “very concerned about the scale of [Rauner’s] proposal.”
“At this point, we can’t rule out any budget solution relative to service levels, fares or our employees,” Wilmot said in an email. “With that said, we have to remain aware that this is the beginning of the state’s budget process and we’ll be working with Governor Rauner’s office and the General Assembly.’’
‘A long battle’
In 2014, Pace’s paratransit ridership totaled more than 4 million individual rides throughout its six-county region, according to Pace data.
In the same year in Will County, paratransit ridership totaled just 21,134 individual rides – a relatively small number compared to the overall regional total.
That’s because ADA service is limited to the area in and around Joliet, where the majority of Pace’s Will County fixed route service is located, according to a Pace spokesperson.
Pam Heavens, executive director for the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living, said she as well as local officials and lawmakers are having ongoing discussions about Rauner’s proposed cuts.
“It’s going to be a long battle, but we’re going to fight,” Heavens said last week. “What will people do without these services? Where do they go?”
Rauner is out of touch with “what everyday people go through,” she said.
Will County Executive Larry Walsh said Rauner’s cuts would reverse strides made in public transportation over the last decade or more.
“These are huge cuts for the people who rely on public transportation the most,” Walsh said. “We should be proud of what we have been able to do for paratransit riders in giving them a safe mode of transportation. He’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
The already-limited paratransit services in Will County is exactly why Knight is so worked up over Rauner’s proposed budget cuts.
Though many at the Center for Independent Living have fought for increased services for years, buses still do not run on Sundays, he said.
“We’re saying we need more transportation. The buses here don’t run on Sundays. And some lines, if you go out further out of Joliet, they cut off earlier in the day. Now we have to stop and say, ‘Our services are being threatened,’ ” Knight said. “Now, how do we even begin to start talking about Sunday services, when we’re constantly fighting to preserve what little we have?”
When asked to respond to critics who say the governor’s proposed cuts affect the most vulnerable citizens and that Rauner is “out of touch” with everyday people, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office said “years of financial recklessness and mismanagement forced Governor Rauner to make difficult choices.”
“The budget prioritizes education and public safety while restructuring the core costs of state government and putting Illinois back on a fiscally sustainable path,” according to an emailed statement.
Rauner’s budget proposal also includes “significant” cuts to Medicaid, along with cuts to other areas, including human services, higher education and local government. His plan also relies on $2.2 billion in anticipated savings from his newly proposed pension reform package.