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Time running out for suburban bus service

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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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  • Not a waste of time OR money
    Not everyone has the ability to live downtown if he or she works downtown. A spouse could make more money working in Fishers or Carmel, and so it makes sense to live in that area. However, that shouldn't keep the other spouse from being able to look downtown for a job, and this bus service is extremely helpful for those situations.

    Also, not everyone is ABLE to drive downtown. I have a neurological condition that easily allows for short drives, but absolutely negates consistent longer ones. Again, this service is helpful for people in my situation as well.
  • What's the problem?
    What's the problem here? Charge the full ten bucks a head to ride the bus and then it's paid by the same people (and only the people) who use the service. Now how hard was that?
  • Failed project
    You can prove people are willing to ride llamas to work if you give them enough incentive to do so, that doesn't mean it's a worthwhile mode of transportation.

    If the only way to get this handful (and, yes this represents less than 1% of 1% of the commuter traffic) is to subsidize them on luxurious tour buses, then we kid ourselves to think it is worthwhile. Try charging $10 per ticket (the ACTUAL COST) and see if the same number of people use this service. If you lose money, then that SHOULD be sending a message. Stop wasting our money on this crud.
  • Zip cars won't work here
    Zip cars work where people don't have their own cars. In the suburbs, everyone already has their own car. DC is in no way comparable to Indianapolis, thank goodness.
  • Why So Expensive?
    If it currently costs $3 per ride, and that's only covering 30% of the actual cost, then it technically costs $10 each way per rider.

    Why so darn expensive???
  • ?
    @pjcombs - Of course it would be cheaper for you if you live in Castleton. It doesn't make any sense for you to go north to go back downtown for you. Not sure why you would do that in the first place since you live south of either express bus? But for people that live in Fishers/Noblesville or Carmel/Westfield, it makes sense.
  • Re: Fuzz Math
    I understand what you're saying and the others who have commented about the return trip. However, look at the simple numbers that IBJ posted, 81,000 and 54,000 riders. At $3 per ride, that's just over $400k, that's 40%, yet they're only claiming they've received 30%.
    Either way i don't like the buses. I looked into it when I lived in Castleton, but it was cheaper and took less time for me to pay for gas and parking downtown. Solution: people who want to work downtown, should live in or near downtown.
  • problem
    The problem with carpool lanes is that they actually increase congestion. Five lanes of traffic plus one lightly traveled carpool lane will move less traffic than six full use lanes. There aren't enough people who would carpool specifically to use the lane to take a significant bite out of traffic.
  • Carpool Lane
    If the idea is to reduce congestion on roads leading to heavily-populated suburban areas or to downtown Indianapolis, why not encourage carpooling? A carpooling lane could be created in which only vehicles carrying two or more passengers could drive. This would also reduce pollution.
    • Fuzzy Math and Cars to Zip Around In
      In response to the point about no way to get around the suburban communities, there is an answer: ZipCars.

      We have them here in the Washington, DC, area. Essentially, you rent the car by the hour. Cars are parked at station lots. See zipcars.com for details.

      Another solution, if the town fathers are willing, is for a reverse commuter to buy an old "station car" -- one that is intended just to get from the station to work and back -- and park it overnight in the station lot.

      In my opinion, for people who commute, mass transit makes more sense than driving, since you can sleep en route, read a book or newspaper, etc.
    • math
      @fuzzy math - I'm not sure about the true math since I don't know all the costs (fuel, driver pay, insurance, etc.), but keep in mind that of those 36 one-way trips you're counting that 13 of those one-way trips don't have any riders. Think about it, there is no transportation in Carmel or Fishers (and no where to park for free downtown), so nobody would use these buses to get up to Carmel or Fishers in the morning (unless you work at Meijer or the church) since you would have no way to get around once you got up there. People are only using these to go into downtown in the morning and then return home in the evening.
      • re:fuzzy math
        Don't forget that the bus is not full every day, each way. In the morning, most inbound trips are full, but the ones heading outbound have maybe 1 or 2 riders on them. That cuts your projections in half.

        Agree on light rail, if you can convince the folks whose homes it will go by to agree to it.
      • fuzzy math
        I'm confused with the economics of this thing. Just doing quick math, ice operates 36 one-way trips each weekday to/from carmel/fishers. 260 weekdays in a year x 36 trips per day = 9360. $1m expense per year / 9360 = about $107 per trip! I realize gas is expensive, and I realize there is maintenence and insurance and driver pay, etc, etc, etc. but at $3 each way, how are they only recovering 30%? that's like 10-11 riders per trip? I've ridden this thing a handful of times and my experience has always been greater ridership than that, heck, at times it was hard to find a seat. Something doesn't add up here, both in looking at their operating expenses and the revenue number.
        • HOW MANY?
          WHAT IS THE AVERAGE DAILY RIDERSHIP OF THE FISHER BUS SERVICE?
        • Priorities
          Light rail from Indy's new billion dollar airport terminal to a downtown multimodal hub should be the highest priority followed by this route to the same downtown hub.

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        2. We are a nation of speed. All of our younger lives are filled with deadlines, quotas and bottom lines. We start to ease out of the pressured rat-race when we finally see "retirement." The most enjoyable travel on the planet is passenger rail service. Indy to Chicago does not beat Megabus or Southwest Airlines in speed. Passenger rail however has the best seating, mammoth legroon, seat backs that recline to more than 45 degrees and employers that really want you to return as a customer. Indiana municipalities need to maintain subsidies to support this transportation mode. Losing it is loss for all of us.

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