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Public Transit in Kokomo Faces Funding, Physical Obstacles

Howard County Courthouse

Photo: Emily Loftis/ WFIU

Next: Part II: Hoosier Cities Struggle to Meet Mass Transit Requests

Despite a recent study showing Kokomo residents want more public transportation options, officials doubt the financial sustainability of such a venture.

“Automobile is king in Kokomo,” said Howard County Transportation Director Larry Ives. “And if I can ride in an automobile, I’m going to do that, and not ride in a bus.”

Despite incentives from the federal government to encourage alternative transportation, Kokomo city officials say any move in that direction could be compromised by the city’s ongoing budget woes. The city has won a million-dollar federal stimulus grant and plans to use the money to build a downtown bus transfer station and fund service on the city’s first two bus routes for a year. But Howard County Commissioner David Trine said he worries about continuing the bus routes after the grant dries up.

“My only hesitancy is, do we need to have that type of an investment up front, not really knowing whether or not it’s really going to be used?” asked Trine.  “Because once you make the investment, you’re there.  And then we have to worry about paying for it for the next year, and the following year. They’re hoping that it will sustain itself.”

Kokomo’s only current form of public transportation, known as the First City Rider program, subsidizes taxi runs made by two private companies.  The average trip costs the rider four dollars and the city three. But Ives said “There are people who are what we call traditionally under-served, low income, that can’t afford our current First City Rider program that could benefit from a fixed route bus system.”

75,000 rides were subsidized under the program in 2008, despite what Ives called, “continued complaints” about the cab service’s dependability and long waiting times.

In order to receive grant funding, the Federal Transit Authority mandates that 80 percent of a city’s population has access to a bus route.  Ives said in order to keep pick-up times close together under the grant requirement, Kokomo would have to operate 16 buses –a fleet size that’s unlikely given the city’s troubled financial situation.

Adam Kerr has lived in Kokomo for years without a vehicle. He commented on the likelihood of his own use of the bus. “You know if it could get me to a place I need to go, I would use it a lot,” said Kerr.

Kerr usually gets around Kokomo by walking, biking or hitching a ride from a friend. For a bus system to adequately serve Kokomo’s public transportation needs, Kerr said it would have to be ambitious. “For a town this size,” he said, “two buses is really not going to cut it.  It’s not a really large area, but it’s really spread out. Different centers of town are way spread out. It’s kind of like a five-year-old playing Sim City.”

Ives said bus programs typically cost a city $100,000 a year—per bus. The First City Rider program currently costs about $800,000 a year. Mayor Greg Goodnight said replacing cab rides with buses could partially pay for itself, but admitted the city’s layout clashes with its current transportation needs.

“The urban sprawl that started in the late 1940’s and continued for decades—long term that’s not a good way to develop your city,” said Goodnight.  “The situation that you have is the situation that you have. And how do you change cultures somewhat?  It’s less likely that we’ll be able to enact some of these ideas because we’re not in that growth period.”

Despite the concerns, the city is pushing forward with the program.  Ives said he hopes the downtown transfer station will be finished in June.  The two new buses will arrive before then.

In Friday’s series conclusion, a look at other hurdles the state must overcome to expand its public transportation infrastructure.

Next: Part II: Hoosier Cities Struggle to Meet Mass Transit Requests

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