Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District - Public Transit Before The MTD

Public Transit Before The MTD

In 1854 the first rail lines in the region were laid 2 miles west of Urbana by the Illinois Central Railroad. The city of Urbana initially wanted nothing to do with the new railroad economy, so a new city, originally named West Urbana, was created to help serve the needs of the railroad. In 1860 West Urbana was renamed Champaign, and subsequently developed into an important railroad town. The station served as a stopover on the way from New Orleans to Chicago, and vice versa. In 1909 this was expanded to also include service from Chicago to Jacksonville, Florida.

The first trolley service in the area was established in 1863, when the Urbana Railroad Company was created to link Urbana and Champaign. These first trolleys were drawn by horses or mules. By 1890, work had begun on an electrified trolley system under the auspices of William B. McKinley. At its peak, this system had as many as 20 routes, including a nighttime "Owl Service" linking Champaign and Urbana.

Interurban streetcar service was also supplied to the area (and indeed to much of Illinois) by the Illinois Terminal Railroad Company, another brainchild of William McKinley. McKinley's scheme of selling electricity from the interurban system to the surrounding towns led to the founding of the Illinois Power and Light Company.

In 1901 the Illinois Motor Transit Company introduced a city bus system to the region, but they went bankrupt within the year. However, the inability of the trolley system to lay enough track to fully serve the area prompted the 1925 addition of another bus system by National City Bus Lines, a subsidiary of General Motors. In 1936, as was happening in other places across the nation, National City Bus Lines purchased the trolley system from the Illinois Power and Light Company and dismantled it. The last trolley operated on 10 November 1936. Within one month bus lines had become the dominant form of transportation in the city under the new name "Champaign-Urbana City Lines".

Ridership on the Champaign-Urbana City Lines was high, reaching 1,000,000 passengers served in 1958. Like most of America however, buses in Champaign-Urbana became less popular with the advent of affordable automobiles. On November 17, 1970, P.E. Cherry, the manager of Champaign-Urbana City Lines, published an article in the Courier stating that declining ridership, aging buses, and a rising deficit would force the line to close. The Illinois Commerce Commission conducted a hearing on the petition to close the city lines and suggested that rather than close the lines, a referendum should be drafted to create a mass transit district.

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