Will employees ride IndyGo to jobs in north suburbs?: Low fares could draw those who can't afford to drive

June 25, 2007

With little effort, IndyGo may well pack buses on a new route starting in September from Fishers to Indianapolis. After all, the hellish commute on interstates 69 and 465 is its own best advertising for taking the bus.

But while full loads each morning to big employment center Indianapolis are one thing, how about when the bus heads back to Fishers to pick up another load for the inbound commute?

"It's like a trucking firm. You want to have full loads going both ways," said Michael Terry, director of business development for the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp.

Fishers officials also are looking at ways to get Marion County residents to take the bus for this so-called reverse commute. The town of 53,000 is growing like the grass out back of a fertilizer factory and has a wafer-thin unemployment rate.

As early as June 25, the Fishers Chamber of Commerce plans to send questionnaires to employers there, in part to determine whether they have any employees who live in Marion County who might like to take the bus, said President and CEO Christi Wolf.

While more than 50,000 people commute from Hamilton County each day to work in Marion County, about 11,400 head the other way into Hamilton County, according to Indiana Business Research Center data going back a couple of years.

"I'd imagine that number has grown," Wolf said.

The Fishers Chamber wants town employers to spread the word about the bus option, even if it's just to put up signs in break rooms.

Over the years, many Hamilton County businesses have failed to attract enough workers from within-particularly for entry-level jobs. So they've tried to lure them from populous Marion County.

But for some in the more proletarian ranks in Marion County, not having reliable or affordable transportation made the long commute north impractical. It was impossible if they wanted public transportation; IndyGo stopped at the county line.

Lately, the soaring price of gasoline has made Hamilton County an even less attractive place to work for motorists. The brake-slamming ballet on the interstates and Binford Boulevard can itself cost motorists several hundred dollars a year in vehicle maintenance.

IndyGo will lease coach-style buses that are more comfortable than its city buses-some possibly with fold-down trays that double as desks.

One challenge besides convincing Marion County residents to take the bus to Fishers is getting them from the bus stop to their workplaces. That will be easier for those arriving in Indianapolis, who can either walk to work downtown or connect to another IndyGo bus. But Fishers has no bus service.

That's one reason Wolf's team is sending out the employer survey. Once Chamber officials learn which Fishers employers have workers who might ride the bus from Marion County, they can start planning a shuttle service from IndyGo's Fishers bus stop at Eastern Star Church, 106th Street and Lantern Road. Wolf said there are a number of private shuttle contractors that can be tapped.

Fishers employers Comcast and student loan giant Sallie Mae have already expressed interest in the new service

Comcast opened a customer service center near 116th Street and Cumberland Road. At least one of that new center's 225 employees used to work at Comcast's 65th Street facility in Indianapolis but has had a heck of a time getting to Fishers because of a physical problem that prevents her from driving, said Comcast regional vice president Mark Apple.

One incentive for reluctant employees comes courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service, of all places. Employers can deduct mass transit fares from employee paychecks on a pretax basis, further reducing the cost.

Some employers in Marion County, including the downtown Hilton Hotel, even buy bus passes in bulk. In some cases, that's shaved $16 a month off a $50 a month bus fare.

IndyGo received $4.5 million in federal funds to launch express service to Hamilton County. Part of those funds will be used for advertising, with the hope the route catches on and can become permanent.

The success of IndyGo's Hamilton County route would be helpful to advocates of a rapid transit line between Indianapolis and Fishers. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization later this year plans to unveil its recommended corridor for the northeast route that could take the form of light rail, dedicated bus lanes or a monorail-type system.

Editor's note: Greg Andrews is off this week. His Behind the News column will return July 7.
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