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Study recommends upgrades for public transportation in counties surrounding Indianapolis

October 31, 2009

When it comes to transit service between counties, most think of latte-sipping suburbanites boarding luxury coaches between downtown and Fishers or Carmel aboard the federally funded IndyGo Commuter Express.

Or there are three IndyGo bus routes that connect with rural transit provider Access Johnson County.

But such county-to-county connections remain relatively few and far between, and “most of the formalized and publicized options are focused on connections to and from Indianapolis and not on access between rural areas,” states a draft of a study for the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority.

The analysis by Dayton transportation consultancy RLS & Associates paints a picture of distinct service breaks at county lines, informal transfer arrangements and roadblocks in the form of funding or administrative boundaries.

“There are a lot of unmet transit needs in central Indiana,” said CIRTA’s executive director, Ehren Bingaman.

In some parts of the region, a local route is available but it requires several transfers. That can make an inter-county trip for a medical appointment “an all-day event,” the study stated.

Or the challenge of multiple transfers is too difficult, especially if there is a long wait time involved or no shelter at the transfer location.

The study also found the connections that do exist are because of dedicated rural transportation providers, who “go the extra effort to arrange inter-system transfers” for a passenger.

Many rural transit lines are operated by human service agencies—not-for-profits that serve the elderly or disabled. Sometimes these agencies team to accomplish what they couldn’t do by themselves.

Informal handoffs

For example, Hamilton County Express, operated by Noblesville-based Janus Developmental Services, picks up at a gas station along Interstate 69 the Indianapolis-bound passengers carried by transit vehicles of Yorktown not-for-profit LifeStream Services.

Hamilton then takes the passengers south to a location on 96th Street, where they board IndyGo’s Open Door vehicles for entry into Marion County.

“Sometimes it will be three times a week,” Elaine McGuire, transportation director of Hamilton County Express, said of the frequency.

Requests to move riders beyond the county line are growing at Boone County Senior Services, which operates the Boone Area Transit System. Its fleet consists of 16 vans, with five more on order. Last year, it made more than 21,000 trips—compared with 9.6 million for IndyGo.

Boone received a request from a family to take a young man to and from work in Hamilton County. The challenge was finding a safe place to drop him off to await the handoff with Hamilton County Express. Both transit agencies agreed on a church in Zionsville as the rendezvous point.

“Right now, a lot of the connection is informal,” observed Samantha Cross, director of business development at IndyGo. “They’re dropped off in a parking lot.”

The bus system serving Marion County has managed to expand formal ties with rural bus systems, starting with one and now three connecting routes to transit provider Access Johnson County.

Such an arrangement is easier with Johnson’s system because it has a number of predictable, fixed routes. Most of the county transit agencies operate on an on-demand basis, where callers make arrangements for a particular trip the previous day.

Smart, cheap ideas

Can transit providers operate smarter and more efficiently—even on these pre-arranged trips?

Bingaman thinks so. For example, he points to the transit operator from a neighboring county that brings a rider to the veterans’ hospital in Indianapolis. Many of these doctor visits are lengthy.

“What’s that vehicle do for the next three hours?” he asks.

Often, the driver will make the long trip back to his or her home county and return to Indianapolis later to pick up the rider. But could the vehicle be pressed into revenue-generating service in Marion County, instead, during the down time? That raises all kinds of jurisdictional and reimbursement questions, but transit leaders are discussing such scenarios.

Closer cooperation raises other issues, such as the disparate dispatching systems that range from IndyGo’s top-notch computerized system to cell phones and CB radios, elsewhere. Boone and Hamilton transit systems are looking at using a common type of scheduling and dispatching software to make their coordination easier, said Sue Ritz, executive director of Boone County Senior Services.

The RLS study found that a “single, one-size-fits-all” regional and cross-county transportation service structure likely would not work, at least initially, citing differing demographic and socioeconomic issues in the area.

But the study suggests a number of ways to improve connectivity, including the addition of transit centers throughout the region. While they won’t reduce wait times, they’d ensure passengers have a safe and accessible place to wait for the other counties’ transit vehicle.

“Even if it was just a shelter with a seat, it would be really helpful,” Ritz said.

Transit providers could also implement circulator routes that improve access between IndyGo stops and employment sites.

Under a more complicated scenario raised by the study, transit providers could hand off to a third party the task of taking calls from those seeking a ride and matching the rider with the appropriate transit service in the region.

That might be too extreme at this point, with many rural providers already doing an admirable job of coordination despite thin resources.

“We know each other. We know who to talk to,” said Boone’s Ritz.

More ideal in her view would be an arrangement in which CIRTA serves in a coordinating role to keep local transit agencies focused on improved service scenarios.

[RLS] “identified a lot of moving parts. There should be some coordination,” Bingaman said.•

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