After 50 Years, RMTD is Still Going Places

Each day, millions of Americans use public transportation to get to jobs, stores, doctor appointments and more. Rockford Mass Transit District (RMTD) has provided this service locally for 50 years and will celebrate its anniversary throughout 2021.

“If you don’t want to have the expense of a car or can’t drive, you still have options,” says Lisa Brown, marketing and public relations specialist at RMTD. “We’re far less expensive than Uber for everyday commutes.”

In March, the district celebrates its drivers. For Earth Day, on April 22, RMTD will promote its new fleet of hybrid electric vehicles – a glimpse into the future of mass transit. June brings a celebration of the district’s vehicle 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, transportation options in the Rockford area were spotty. Just as streetcar and trolley services faded away, privately owned bus service was endangered, too, because it’s not necessarily profitable.

“A company would buy a transport service as an auxiliary company, run it as best as 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 wasn’t allowed to grow as the community grew because of that instability.”

This situation wasn’t unique to Rockford and is why cities across the state rallied behind Illinois’ 1971 Mass Transit District Act.

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

RMTD is supported partly by fares and partly by state, federal and local subsidies.

“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.

RMTD has evolved, figuring out how to sustain night service since 1995 and updating routes to serve areas north, south, west and east rather than downtown and shopping corridors alone.

The 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act meant upgrading the fleet to serve people in need of mobility assistance.

“We’ve 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,” says Brown.

RMTD is reviewing its carbon footprint. All new vehicles are hybrid electric, in accordance with RMTD’s sustainability policy, and investment is being made in alternative fuel technology.

The new hybrid electric buses sport the district’s bold new branding and logo. These periwinkle-and-gray buses also 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. Recent renovations to the downtown RMTD Transfer Center include LED lighting, updated insulation, a solar water heating system and a new green space.

RMTD has been an economical choice for riders for 50 years. According to the American Public Transportation Association, riding public transportation can save people, on average, more than $816 per month.

During 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. RMTD also offers a variety of discounted passes.

The district recently introduced a mobile fare app that makes fare-paying hands-free.

COVID-19 safety protocol limits passenger capacity to 14 people per bus, with shuttle buses available for overflow when demand is high. In general, COVID has diminished ridership.

“This is truly unfortunate because prior to COVID, we were showing modest gains in ridership,” says Brown.
As the world changes, the RMTD team continually evaluates how to provide the best possible service to the Rockford area, says Brown.

“It would be lovely if more people would choose public transportation,” she says. “Or, at least choose public transportation a couple of days a week to help the environment, their pocketbooks and our service.

Heightening the awareness of how vital we are and what we can do for our community is our goal now and into the future.” ❚