Study recommends upgrades for public transportation in counties surrounding Indianapolis

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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