Carmel council reluctantly OKs commuter bus subsidy

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Carmel City Council voted 7-0 Monday to subsidize the Indy Express commuter bus for the rest of this year, but members made it clear their support was tenuous at best.

“The numbers are disconcerting,” Councilor Rick Sharp said of the weekday service between the suburbs and downtown Indianapolis.

As IBJ reported in July, private operator Miller Transportation has been losing money on the route since a federal demonstration grant ran out last year.

Ridership is growing, but the $5-per-ride fare isn’t enough yet to pay for the two buses needed in each community to run three departures and return trips daily.

Miller reduced expenses by eliminating one bus—and one departure option—on each route. Hedging against the ridership drop likely to result from the change, program coordinator Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority turned to local leaders for stopgap funding.

Fishers Town Council agreed last month to cover up to $22,500 of Miller’s losses through the end of 2014. Carmel’s council approved spending as much as $30,000, albeit reluctantly.

“I’m concerned about spending $30,000 for a service that’s on life support,” said fiscal hawk Luci Snyder, who chairs the council’s finance committee. “It’s a good idea.  What are you doing to make it work? “

She and other councilors took Miller and CIRTA to task, saying the commuter-bus program needs a solid business plan and an aggressive marketing strategy.

“We can’t keep pouring money down a hole,” said Kevin “Woody” Rider.

Commuters took about 28,500 trips on the Carmel route last year, according to CIRTA, and about 35,000 trips to and from Fishers. As ridership increases, the gap narrows.

“I would definitely like to support the program, but it becomes an unfair subsidy for a very small number of Carmel residents,” Sharp said.

Several Indy Express riders spoke in support of the service during a public hearing Monday, citing benefits including an improved quality of life that comes with not battling rush-hour traffic from behind the wheel.

Demand for mass-transit options like the commuter bus is likely to grow along with Hamilton County’s population, said CIRTA President Christine Altman, also president of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners.

With Hamilton County projected to double in size by 2050, “we need to have a plan in place other than single-occupant vehicles,” she said.

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