CIRTA pulls plug on Carmel commuter bus line

The Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority notified Carmel Express riders Monday that the commuter-bus service will be discontinued after Dec. 19 despite $30,000 in stopgap funding and marketing support from the city.

The move comes less than three months after program coordinator CIRTA and private operator Miller Transportation—which had been running two Hamilton County commuter routes at a loss—adjusted the bus schedule to reduce expenses.

Miller had been using two buses to run three daily departures and return trips between downtown Indianapolis and a park-and-ride lot in Carmel, and two more to provide three round-trip options between Fishers and Indianapolis. But as IBJ reported in July, the $5-per-ride fare wasn't enough to cover expenses.

Organizers eliminated one bus and one round-trip option in each community, and the company asked local government to cover any shortfalls that resulted from the service cuts. But “traffic constraints” plagued the Carmel route, CIRTA said in a letter to riders, making it impossible to offer two morning departures.

“We believe that the uncertainty and reduced service has had a significant role in lagging ridership,” according to the letter distributed Monday afternoon.

CIRTA said Tuesday that in the three months ended Nov. 30, Carmel ridership totaled 3,758—almost 45 percent fewer passengers than the FIshers route, which has been able to maintain two morning options: at 5:55 and 7:15. The Fishers bus, which will continue running for the time being, averages about 18 people on the first departure and 40 on the second, Town Manager Scott Fadness told the Fishers Town Council during a Monday work session.

The Fishers council agreed in August to cover up to $22,500 of Miller’s losses through the end of 2014 in order to keep the commuter buses running this year. CIRTA estimated the tab was $2,023 as of Nov. 30. Fadness said the soon-to-be-city didn’t include any money for the route in its 2015 budget proposal, but transit officials are hoping to continue discussing future funding.

Carmel’s council in September approved spending as much as $30,000 to subsidize the service for the last four months of this year. At the end of November, its estimated bill was $16,250.

CIRTA Executive Director Andrew Gast-Bray notified Carmel leaders in a Nov. 18 letter that the route would be discontinued without additional funding to increase the level of service.

"As discussed during the meeting with you, transit service, like road and bridge infrastructure, is not self-sustaining and requires subsidy to be successful," he wrote in the missive addressed to City Council and Mayor Jim Brainard. "Subsidies typically are provided by local government sources."

Commuters took about 28,500 trips on the Carmel route last year, according to CIRTA figures released in August, and about 35,000 trips to and from Fishers.

"We are disappointed that this commuter service did not work," Brainard said in a statement emailed to IBJ. "We supported the effort as an economic development tool and we would support future efforts to bring a strong public transportation system to the Indianapolis area."

In the letter to bus riders, CIRTA suggested other alternatives to a solitary car trip downtown, including the agency’s existing rideshare program. A dozen former Carmel Express regulars already are traveling together in a vanpool, leasing a vehicle and sharing the driving duties. And that group is looking to upgrade to a 15-passenger van, said Patricia Castañeda, CIRTA's mobility manager.

The agency plans to do on-bus presentations Wednesday to make sure all riders are aware of other transportation options available through its Commuter Connect program, Castañeda said.

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