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Time running out for suburban bus service

August 26, 2010

Riders of the popular IndyGo Commuter Express bus lines between downtown Indianapolis and Hamilton County will have to wait a little longer to learn whether the service will continue beyond December.

Regional transportation officials are still trying to lasso federal grants to cover the largest portion of the operating expenses for the routes from Carmel and Fishers to downtown.

The so-called ICE routes began about three years ago, courtesy of a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant that covers 80 percent of the cost. IndyGo is trying to stretch that money through year-end.

The service has annual expenses of just over $1 million.

Ridership has been strong, with fare-box revenue alone covering more than 30 percent of the total costs for the Fishers route, versus an average of 19 percent typical of such routes, said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority.

Hundreds of riders use the routes daily. More than 81,000 passenger trips were taken on the Fishers route in 2009 and nearly 54,000 were taken on the Carmel route.

Fare-box revenue, in fact, has been so strong that it is covering the 20-percent share of costs that would have been the responsibility of the town of Fishers, according to CIRTA.

“We’ve demonstrated that people will ride it,” said Bingaman.

Lately, transportation planners, working with the Indiana Department of Transportation, have been looking at the potential of a federal grant that helps fund so-called reverse commuting, in which workers leave the city for work in the suburbs.

However, the federal grant covers only 50 percent, rather than 80 percent, of the cost. Bingaman would like to see local governments cover the additional amount, although he concedes that budgets are tight for local governments. And IndyGo is struggling financially just to maintain its core service.  

Unfortunately for ICE, “we’re not on pace to bring in 50 percent of the revenue from the fare box,” Bingaman said.

So CIRTA is looking at other potential grants and may file an application next month.

IndyGo had been designated to receive $434,720 from a federal earmark to promote reverse commuting for the Fishers express route, according to records of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization.

But that money was for capital expenses, not for operating expenses, said Bingaman. Instead, rather than let the earmark lapse, that money will now go to helping IndyGo purchase replacement buses for its system.

Beyond an attempt to reduce traffic and pollution on the northeast side, the ICE service has been important to demonstrate commuter demand for mass transit.

Indianapolis has for decades trailed some similar-sized cities such as Columbus, Ohio, as far as transit deployment. IndyGo is chronically underfunded and thus focuses on the most transit-needy.

ICE demonstrated that more affluent suburbanites are willing to take the bus to work, especially when it’s on an upscale coach bus operated under contract with Louisville-based charter carrier Miller Transportation.

Demonstrating suburbanite interest in transit is crucial to landing federal funding for a proposed commuter rail line from downtown to Noblesville, via the former Nickel Plate Railroad route.

Environmental studies of that route are under way.  With stiff competition for federal rail funding, it’s envisioned that a regional transit tax would likely be the fastest way of securing funds for the rail line—assuming metro-area counties get on board.

Residents of suburban counties already pay a regional food tax to fund a portion of Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts. The tax has been controversial, criticized by some as forcing local residents to effectively subsidize a millionaire football team owner.

While rail transit arguably would be more palatable to many, the idea of subsidizing relatively affluent Hamilton County commuters could be a challenge.

Rail proponents counter that the northeast line would just be the first of many rail routes eventually radiating from Indianapolis, with broad economic development potential.

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