NORMAL — Connect Transit officials want to give one of their newly retired buses a second life.
As soon as next spring, a former fixed-route vehicle could become Bloomington-Normal's first "community bus" — a bus that, like Bloomington Public Library's bookmobile, brings goods and services to the community, but on a broader scale than books and media.
"We want to make a section of the bus a fresh (food) market. We're also working on free medical screenings and voter registration drives," said General Manager Isaac Thorne. "This is a huge opportunity to do a lot of positive things for the community and spread our message."
Thorne envisions the bus as a small investment, not more than $1,000, that would accrue few road miles and last several years.
The system would also give up between $500 and $1,500 from a possible sale of an out-of-service bus. Several old buses will leave service soon as the system replaces them with newer models, including electric buses.
Officials hope to choose a bus to transform soon, then give staff a few months to remove seats and install new features. Eventually, that could include advertising that would make the bus pay for itself.
Marketing Manager Jeff Holtke said the bus would also give Connect Transit a consistent, mobile venue to host events. The system frequently uses libraries and other public spaces for community engagement sessions, as well as public functions like Friday's 4 to 6 p.m. open house at Uptown Station to welcome Thorne as the system's long-term general manager.
"Instead we could just say, 'Our bus is going to be here at this time. Come see us,'" said Holtke. "We could park it at a different place every day."
Officials said they haven't landed on a catchy name for the project and invite public suggestions.
Thorne spoke about the project during Tuesday's Connect Transit board meeting, which included approval of another community-focused service.
Connect Transit will run a free bus from Uptown Station to Eastview Christian Church during limited hours 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays and 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays to help residents get to the church's food pantry.
Service is expected to start mid-November and run for at least six months. Eastview will pay for the service, which is expected to cost about $25,000.
In order to offer the charter service, Connect Transit — which is heavily subsidized by the federal government, as well as state and local money — was required under federal rules to first contact private bus providers in the community and ensure none of them were interested in taking on the route.
"If Eastview doesn't renew this agreement, we won't provide the service anymore," said Thorne. "We can't afford it."