Oak Park extended its free shuttle program, Monday, till the end of the year-three months after trustees considering killing it.

Last March, the free shuttle came up for its yearly renewal at a cost of $200,000, a 34-percent increase from last year. Some board members felt the program was unnecessary, too expensive, and duplicated public transportation.

So the board asked for more information and only extended the program until June 30.

The village commissioned a study by the Center for Neighborhood Technology to evaluate the shuttle. Senior Vice President Stephen Perkins recommended continuing the program. But he suggested revising it by keeping better track of ridership, marketing it better, and considering charging a fee or selling ads on the shuttles.

Perkins cited a 7.7-percent increase in users from 2006 to 2007 as one reason for continuing the program. He also said the program-which started in 2004 and offers free rides from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.-is well regarded in the village.

“The remarkable thing is the support for the shuttle in the community,” he said. “There’s not a lot of criticism for it.”

The board voted 4-2 to continue the program, with Trustee Jan Pate absent. It will cost Oak Park roughly $90,000 to operate the shuttle through the rest of the year

Trustees Jon Hale and John Hedges cast the dissenting votes. Hale lambasted the program. He pointed to other numbers in the CNT study, which he felt should’ve killed the program.

If ridership numbers stay flat in 2008, it will cost the village $6.05 per ride on the shuttle. The current shuttle generates as much emissions, annually, as 62 commuters driving to the Loop. And 60 percent of those interviewed in the study said walking was one of their alternatives to taking the shuttle.

Hale believes the last stat shows the shuttle contradicts Oak Park’s objectives of sustainability and good health.

“We’re duplicating a mass transit system that’s already in financial difficulties,” he said. “Where is the benefit?”

On the other side, trustees pointed to the positive numbers shown in the study.

Trustees said the shuttle connects riders to mass transit in the village and transports them to businesses around Oak Park. Also, the study showed about 75 percent of riders make less than $35,000 a year.

“Suspending this program would send the wrong message to people who use it,” Trustee Ernest Moore said.

The village is working to obtain two trolleys to possibly replace the shuttles in the future. Village officials worried that suspending the program would kill any loyal following the program has built since its start in 2004.

The village is working to get $800,000 in federal funds, which would be used to bring two 20-seat trolleys to the village.

However, Village Manager Tom Barwin says their delivery has been delayed and the vehicles likely won’t arrive for at least nine months.

Two people spoke in favor of the trolleys during public comment Monday.

“I think a lot of people from out of town don’t really get [the shuttle program],” said Mike Fox, owner of the Carleton Hotel. “Everybody gets a trolley. I will take my kids for a ride on the trolley; I don’t really care where it goes.”

Barwin said the board will revaluate the shuttle program during its budget process at the end of the year. He said charging fees or selling ads wouldn’t work, but the village could consider shifting routes or marketing it better.

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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