Since losing the contract to run Davenport's bus system at the end of 2000, MetroLINK has begun to aggressively expand its services, and planned bus routes to rural areas and nearby college towns could be just the first step.

In December, after six years of running the CitiBus system, MetroLINK's contract with the City of Davenport expired. (Davenport hired First Transit of Cincinnati to run the service.) But the Moline-based mass-transit system has moved quickly to establish new services to fill the void.

On May 1, MetroLINK will begin offering RuralLINK, connecting Henry, Mercer, and northern Rock Island counties to the existing bus system in Illinois. And on June 1, MetroLINK will begin CityLINK, providing bus service to and from cities such as Iowa City, Viola, Monmouth, and Macomb.

The loss of the CitiBus contract was one factor in the decision to begin new services, said Rachael Mullins, MetroLINK's marketing director. "Newly freed up resources ... allowed us to meet those demands more effectively," she said.

Mullins also said MetroLINK is looking at implementing some additional service "enhancements" this summer.

But the biggest project might be a rapid-transit system for the Illinois side of the Quad Cities. And aside from what it means for MetroLINK, rapid transit could reduce sprawl and help speed revitalization of the Quad Cities' downtowns, proponents say.

MetroLINK is currently three months into a year-long study of a 12-mile-long corridor going from Interstate 80 to past the Centennial Bridge, running primarily along existing rail lines near the Mississippi River. The analysis will look at the feasibility of a rapid-transit system, but a decision about whether to proceed with such a system - and who would build and operate it - won't come until much later.

"This is a long process of studying and planning," Mullins said. "This is the Quad Cities of 10 years from now."

The term "rapid transit" is broad and could include several possibilities. A system might feature standard diesel engines (such as an elevated-train or subway system); electricity-powered light rail; or bus rapid transit (on dedicated roads, most likely in railroad right-of-ways).

The time and cost involved in creating any of those systems means rapid transit in the Quad Cities is a long-term project. "There's nobody who can do anything in less than five years," said Elizabeth Van Lauwe, administrative manager for MetroLINK.

The corridor study was funded by a grant, so MetroLINK's investment so far isn't a cash one. And MetroLINK claims that its purpose is altruistic. "We're doing it because we do have some cross-jurisdictional authority," Van Lauwe said.

She added that MetroLINK might not even be a good candidate to establish a rapid-transit system in the Quad Cities; nobody in the organization has an expertise in the field, for one thing.

Yet MetroLINK remains in the lead, spearheading the Illinois study. (If rapid transit appears feasible, MetroLINK hopes that some entity will undertake a similar project on the Iowa side of the river; the two states' corridors would most likely hook up under one large system.)

The Illinois corridor was chosen because of its adaptability - existing rail lines or rights-of-way are natural choices for rapid transit - but also for other reasons. There are many large employers and attractions on the route, and the riverfront path means it would run along areas already targeted for economic redevelopment, including The Quarter in East Moline, the John Deere Commons area, and The District of Rock Island.

"All of these things work together very well," said Joanne Vlecides Schroeder, a consultant leading the feasibility study.

Rapid transit shares with mass transit several goals, including less traffic congestion, lower fuel consumption, and reduced air pollution. But it also has larger aims, such as helping revitalization efforts and encouraging people to move back to the central city. MetroLINK hopes that rapid transit in the Quad Cities will link residents to major employment and entertainment centers and therefore create higher population densities along the urban rail corridor.

The study itself includes four components; three involve considering opportunities and narrowing down alternatives for rapid transit, but the fourth element is about building consensus and community support for a system.

To that end, MetroLINK has already formed a project-advisory committee from stakeholders along the corridor, Vlecides Schroeder said.

In early meetings, Vlecides Schroeder said, "everybody was kind of in the listening mode." There was no negative reaction to the study, she said, but some people thought other transportation issues - such as passenger rail service to Chicago - should take precedence over rapid transit.

The issue of rapid transit can also get mired in politics when it comes to details. Consultant Brian Vandewalle - who's heavily involved in redevelopment efforts in Moline, East Moline, and Davenport and has strong relationships with Deere & Company and other major political and business leaders in the area - has been a champion of rapid transit. And because Vandewalle is also involved in the rapid-transit project, he could try to shape any system to suit those with whom he already has relationships.

"It can get bogged down in politics," Van Lauwe conceded. Vlecides Schroeder said that's why strong public and private leadership is crucial, and why the study stresses building community support.

Overall, mass transit has become increasingly popular. Nationwide, the number of rides on public-transportation systems continues to rise, and in the Quad Cities, the number of MetroLINK rides has grown approximately 4 percent over the past four years. And as our society continues to get older, mass transit will become increasingly vital for people who can no longer drive.

Towns much smaller than the Quad Cities - less than 100,000 people - have built successful rapid-transit systems. "If it's done properly, it can indeed be a very viable transportation system," Vlecides Schroeder said.

But rapid transit is a long way off. In the short term, MetroLINK is focusing its energy on establishing RuralLINK and CityLINK, two services that could establish the transit authority as a truly regional presence.

RuralLINK, even though it's just a few days from getting started, isn't a service with set routes or times at this point. "We don't know what we're going to find," Mullins said. "It will be based on what your neighbors are doing. It will be very reactive initially."

Customers in rural areas call the toll-free number (866)638-7608 to ask for a ride, and they'll be given a time to be picked up based on other requests. Rides cost $1.50.

Over the course of the one-year pilot project, MetroLINK will determine the service's primary corridors and peak times, and if it chooses to continue RuralLINK, routes will be based on that information.

The program is partially funded by a grant from the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities, but "MetroLINK is actually [financially] supporting the upstart," Mullins said. "We're looking for partners."

CityLINK goes even farther afield than RuralLINK. MetroLINK expects the service will be popular among college students at schools such as the University of Iowa and Western Illinois University, as well as people from out-of-town coming to Quad City International Airport. One-way tickets will cost between $12 and $15, depending on the destination, Mullins said.

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