By Shawn Jones

Since at least 2000, Northwestern University has entered into contracts with bus services to transport its students around Evanston and Chicago. As a result, seven buses run between Chicago and Evanston (between) 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. every night, completing an estimated 400,000 student trips in the current year, and every one of the buses sports an Indiana license plate.

According to Alan K. Cubbage, NU’s Vice President for University Relations, the University’s transportation program has grown every year. NU has added buses and schedules as well as new routes. The Evanston to Chicago shuttle, known as the Intercampus Shuttle, provided 18,000 rides in fiscal year 2000; it provided 311,000 rides in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2008, and the University expects a 30 percent increase this year. “We anticipate more than 400,000 rides this fiscal year,” said Mr. Cubbage.

The Intercampus Shuttle is operated by The Free Enterprise System, Inc., a motorcoach company based in Jeffersonville, Indiana (just across the river from Louisville, Kentucky) but with offices in Lansing, Illinois. According to Cheryl Kirby, Dispatch Agent for the Free Enterprise System, the company has provided the Intercampus Shuttle service since January 2008, taking over after it purchased the former provider, Royal American Charter Lines. Seven buses are devoted to the route, along with ten drivers. The company houses the buses in Lansing, Illinois when they are not in operation.

The Free Enterpise System operates a similar service for Loyola University, transporting students between the Rogers Park Lakeshore campus and the Water Tower campus near Chicago Avenue and N. Rush Street. Ms. Kirby stated that the Loyola service uses five buses. The company also provides additional route service for NU between the Chicago campus and CTA stops.

Why are the busses registered in Indiana? Per Ms. Kirby, it is because the company’s corporate headquarters are in Indiana. Per Mr. Cubbage, the University has no position or comment on the Indiana licensure issue. “I’m sure they’re licensed wherever need be,” he said.

The Illinois Secretary of State’s office described the licensure requirements as complicated. Ernie Dannenberger, an International Registration Plan [“IRP”] specialist with that Office, explained, “Normally the expectation is that [buses operating in Illinois] have some form of registration in Illinois.” That registration can take the form of a license directly from the Illinois Secretary of State or an IRP license. An IRP registration allows buses to operate across state lines with “the mileage traveled in Illinois then being apportioned to Illinois” at year end, according to Mr. Dannenberger.

You can tell if a vehicle has an IRP license if somewhere on the license plate the word “apportioned” or perhaps just “APP” appears, stated Mr. Dannenberger. The Free Enterprise System buses have IRP plates and therefore pay an apportioned registration fee to the state of Illinois.

But the story does not necessarily end there. The fact that the busses never leave Illinois, but travel between Lansing, Chicago and Evanston, may complicate things, continued Mr. Dannenberger. “We would have to ask several questions, like what counts as the headquarters [based on] a number of factors,” he said. The individual situation would have to be investigated by the Secretary of State’s office. There are no current plans to do so.”

The Intercampus Shuttle is one of six regularly scheduled Evanston Campus shuttles listed on the NU transportation and parking website, but the only one with full-sized buses. The shuttle begins in the Ryan Field parking lot, then makes 12 stops in Evanston (the last being Chicago and Main) before heading to Chicago. The Shuttle makes only one stop, at the Loyola Red Line Station, before arriving at Northwestern’s Chicago Campus at Chicago Avenue between Columbus Drive and Lakeshore Drive. It is free for students, faculty and staff carrying the proper ID.

The shuttle provides a much more direct service, said Mr. Cubbage, allowing for a quicker trip than the Purple Line. “It is very heavily used,” he added. At one point, PACE provided service on at least some of the routes, said Cubbage, but no longer.

Nevertheless, the full-sized busses often appear to be more than half empty. One member of the City Staff said, “I think they do more harm than good” [referring to wear and tear on City streets]. At least one Alderman, Ann Rainey of the 8th Ward, has mentioned the lack of city stickers on the busses when at a recent Administration and Public Works meeting, she also referred to busses as having two students and no city sticker.