Successful growth patterns led the McDonough County Public Transportation Committee to discuss Friday potential problems it could face in two years if it doesn't plan ahead.

Jude Kiah, director of the GoWest bus system, said ridership has exploded over the past year on three city bus routes. He said that, after a down year last year, ridership has increased by more than 60 percent on the route serving northwest Macomb.

Kiah also pointed to a 23 percent ridership increase on the southwest Macomb route and an 18 percent increase on the route serving northeast Macomb.

"The growth has stunned us," he said. "Smaller buses won't work there much longer."

This caused Macomb Mayor Mike Inman to raise concern about the wear and tear on city streets caused by larger buses.

"We may want to look closely at the damage ratios and shift bus sizes and routes accordingly," the mayor said.

"We should probably, with your staff, determine weights that are acceptable," Kiah responded. "I would say we have a couple of years before this becomes an imminent issue."

Transit Director Gary Ziegler said a new state bill has been approved setting operating assistance funds for the next two years.

"More funds were appropriated for rural transportation," he said. "Whether that means more funding for us is up in the air."

Ziegler explained that MCPT was not able to access additional dollars this year because it doesn't have the matching funds required.

Kiah said that, of 90 public transit systems in the state, only four or five have sufficient local matching capabilities.

"We're not getting raises because IDOT has been spending that money on new systems," Kiah said. "Some are receiving increases that don't need them when that money is needed somewhere else."

Ziegler said MCPT has not received a state operational funding increase for three years, having received three percent increases in each of the prior years.

He said declining enrollment at Western Illinois University has decreased bus fee income that could be used as local matching dollars.

"I don't want people to think that's caused a current budget problem because it hasn't," Ziegler said. "This could become a long-term issue but we are OK now."

Kiah said one possible solution is that the state could send unspent surplus transportation dollars to the local systems as it continues to receive a 10 percent increase in annual appropriations. Officials have to advocate for themselves and that they've "a very compelling argument," he said, noting that MCPT has the highest per capita ridership downstate.

Ziegler said bus ridership on city routes is up by 22 percent this year, and that GoWest carried a cumulative total of 134,428 passengers in August.

The transit director said the MCPT point to point van service, known as Demand Response, served a cumulative total of 4,517 passengers.

Thirty-five new clients signed up for MCPT van service in August, Ziegler said, bringing the total active client list to 3,802. Ziegler said the establishment of the Macomb Transit Center this year has minimized vehicle maintenance issues with the vans and buses.

Stan Carlisle, who coordinates the vans operated by drivers from the American Red Cross chapter, said 83 out of town trips were made in August to take people to medical appointments. He said there were 11 trips made to Springfield, 10 to Galesburg, nine to Peoria, three apiece to Quincy and Stronghurst, two apiece to Carthage and Iowa City, and one ;apiece to Hamilton and West Burlington.

Carlisle said he would like to hire one substitute driver. Bob Fuhr, who coordinates van service through Bridgeway, said he would have all needed drivers on the job in two weeks. GoWest is still advertising for additional bus drivers.