Doors still closed on Hamilton County bus service: Local officials continue to nail down preferred routes

Bus service to Hamilton County won’t begin this year, as some commuters and planners had hoped.

But the 10-month reconstruction of Interstate 70 across Indianapolis’ east side, starting in February, could push the accelerator to get service started.

“I’d certainly hope so ….The work on I-70 is probably going to make the commuters’ ride a little tougher,” said Gary A. Huff, town manager of Fishers.

It was another interstate project, the 2003 Hyperfix of the interstates 65/70 split downtown that brought a surprising amount of interest from Hamilton County commuters. Special IndyGo shuttles headed to the northeast side of Marion County and farther north, to Fishers. The route cost riders $2, one-way.

The success spawned plans for express bus service to Hamilton County.

Last February, IndyGo said it received a $3.6 million federal grant to fund most of the anticipated cost of starting a route to Lawrence Township in Marion County, and to the Hamilton County towns of Fishers, Carmel and Westfield.

Commuting between Fishers, a town of 60,000, and downtown Indianapolis is often long and aggravating due to congestion on interstates 69 and 465. Carmel and Westfield residents also face delays on U.S. 31 and other heavily traveled northsouth routes.

With many of those commuters bullish for a public transit alternative, IndyGo and local officials have been trying to nail down routes and to come up with local matching money to the federal grant.

As for the $910,272 local match, “I don’t know [that] that’s the issue anymore,” said Ronnetta Spalding, spokeswoman for IndyGo.

According to Huff, much of the discussion lately has involved route planning. One challenge is how to get riders to Indianapolis quickly enough to make the bus attractive.

IndyGo’s Comprehensive Operational Analysis plan, completed a few years ago, proposed an express route from Fishers starting from a park-and-ride lot at Fishers Station.

From there, it would proceed across 116th Street, then south on I-69 to 96th Street. The bus would pick up passengers at a second park-and-ride lot, which also would allow connections to existing bus service.

For riders headed downtown, the bus would get back on I-69 and shoot down Binford Boulevard and Fall Creek Parkway.

But Huff said discussion of late is that “I-69 might not be the best choice,” given its growing congestion. “Using express bus service, you would expect it to get there quickly,” he said. “You can’t have a lot of stops.”

Lately, officials have had tentative discussions with Eastern Star Church, 8850 E. 106th St., as a possible park-and-ride site. It was used previously, during Hyperfix.

Huff noted that the Fishers Town Council would need to OK using town funds toward its $63,000 share of the local match.

He said it’s possible that a no-cost, inkind contribution such as a donated parkand-ride lot might count toward the contribution.

Many Fishers residents have inquired about an express bus route, Huff said. Also, Hamilton County employers have long pushed for extending bus service to the north, saying some prospective workers in Marion County lack transportation or don’t want to drive that far to work.

IndyGo’s COA plan also called for a route extending due north, through Carmel, all the way to Westfield. It proposed park-and-ride lots at Village Park Plaza, Merchants Square, Keystone Crossing and Glendale Mall.

Huff said officials hope to have routes pinned down by mid-December.

IndyGo, meanwhile, has been looking for larger buses for the route. Last month, transit officials took a look at articulating buses as one option.

IndyGo estimated it would need $1.5 million a year in local support to maintain an express bus system to Hamilton County.

Even if express bus service isn’t ready in time for I-70 reconstruction, IndyGo could launch a temporary shuttle service to the northeast side. The transit agency is evaluating the overall need and discussing options with city and state officials, Spalding said.

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