Will little transit systems make bigger footprint?: Study to look at economies, new opportunities to grow and coordinate rural bus systems

They’re overshadowed in all the talk of a commuter rail line and its cosmopolitan allure.

And they don’t get headlines like Indy-Go does when it launches another route to whisk Carmel and Fishers suburbanites to work downtown.

But rural transit providers in the nine doughnut counties quietly generate economic growth by hauling hundreds of thousands of people each year in small buses or vans to doctors’ offices, shopping centers and jobs.

Suburban businesses have been grousing for years that the region needs to grow its public transit footprint so lowerincome city residents can afford to travel to Carmel, Plainfield and other far-flung ‘burbs for work.

The Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority plans to help rural providers find efficiencies, expand their services, and become better integrated into a diverse regional transit system for the metro area.

Toward that end, CIRTA has landed a $100,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Transportation.

A local match of $20,000 likely will come out of CIRTA’s budget.

“We’re going to be looking at the problems some of these on-demand providers are facing,” said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of CIRTA. “One of my first questions is, can we identify economies of scale?”

These could include jointly buying fuel, tires and other parts, for example, said Rebecca Allen, transportation director for ACCESS Johnson County. It provides fixed-route and dial-a-ride services thanks to funds from municipalities such as Greenwood.

As it is, one transit system might get a break by obtaining fuel from the county while another has a deal to buy gas at a discount from a chain with a local presence.

Improving coordination among systems is another goal. Dispatch systems can vary widely, making it more complex to hand off a passenger at the county line to another transit system.

“Some use a cell phone, some use CBs,” Bingaman said.

Such limitations have impeded intercounty connections.

“People are always calling us, asking how they’re going to get to another county,” said Elaine McGuire, transportation manager at Janus Development Services.

The Noblesville organization transports people to its training programs and runs Hamilton County Express, an on-demand transit service available to county residents.

“Ehren is a good person we think to push it [coordination] further,” McGuire said.

It’s not that regional transit systems haven’t gotten together in the past to forge ties, at least with routes.

One of the best examples is a partnership between ACCESS Johnson County and IndyGo. The two transit systems couldn’t be more different: IndyGo carrying 9.4 million riders last year and ACCESS 91,000 riders.

But under an agreement the systems hammered out, riders of both systems can purchase an IndyGo “Day Pass” for trips in the Greenwood area. The passes are not only valid on ACCESS for trips in Greenwood but also on all of IndyGo’s routes. The collaboration means a rider from as far south as Edinburg can travel north to Indianapolis.

The two transit systems even share a bus stop.

Still, there’s room for improvement around the entire region, especially if a rail system is eventually built, Allen said. “There’s plenty of people out there who are not getting to where they want to go.”

Identifying efficiencies should help, giving transit systems more money to plow into expanding their capabilities, Bingaman said.

Operating on shoestring budgets, many of these systems don’t have money even to market their service. Bingaman wonders if they might be able to do that by pooling resources.

“These probably are the one [transportation mode] folks know the least about,” Bingaman said of rural transit providers.

Traditionally, rural transit systems are funded by a variety of state, local and federal funds. Often, they’re operated by community human services organizations, such as Janus.

Many of the riders are older and have disabilities. For some with developmental challenges, the rural transit systems are essential for getting to and from job training.

But the demographics of rural transit have been changing, and for a number of reasons.

ACCESS ridership is up 20 percent since June, when flooding ravaged parts of Johnson County and southern Indiana. Rising gas prices have also filled seats, according to Allen. She figures ridership is up an average of 100 people a month. “The majority of our trips are work-related.”

Transportation officials say these rural bus services will likely become more important as doughnut counties continue to be places to live and work in their own right-not just bedroom communities to Indianapolis.

Recent data on what impact these rural transit systems have in the metro area is hard to come by. But research funded by the Federal Transit Administration previously found that, within a given commuting zone, the average net earnings growth for rural counties with transit service was 11 percent higher than counties without.

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