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Hoosier Cities Struggle To Meet Mass Transit Requests

Previous: Part I: Public Transit in Kokomo Faces Funding, Physical Obstacles

Despite a surge of federal transportation stimulus grants, recession-riddled cities in southern and central Indiana are struggling to meet transportation needs.  Transit directors are receiving similar rider requests for program expansions, but the money just isn’t there.

Surviving in a Hoosier city without a car is difficult.  And transportation between cities or on weekends is, in many cases, nearly impossible. Many Indiana cities have received federal transportation grants, but municipal transit systems are still struggling to fund expansions for growing demand. A common hurdle frequent in Indiana towns with an automotive history, like Kokomo, are their layouts; almost none were developed with mass transit in mind.

Kokomo Transportation Director Larry Ives said planning routes around diffused populations proves difficult.

“We run into a lot of problems with a fixed route bus system because the layout of our city isn’t really conducive to that because we’re kind of long and narrow and we don’t have high density population areas,” said Ives. “Our ridership is kind of sprinkled around the community, which makes a challenge—where do we run our route? Not that it can’t be done, but it’s a real challenge to do that.”

County-to-county transportation routes are lacking around the state as well. ColumBus Administrative Assistant Christy Decker said she frequently receives requests for a connecting route to surrounding areas. But providing that service is another story…

“Our service is kind of isolated. A lot of the counties connect between one another.  We’re not doing that. So we get a lot of requests to expand our service to connect to Access Johnson County so that people can get from Columbus to Indianapolis,” she said.

Columbus recently received a federal transportation grant for $880,000.  The city is using it to construct a centralized transfer station. But the operation is in need of a steady funding source. With local governments struggling to makes ends meet due to new property tax caps, most Hoosier cities and counties are unable to take on new expenses like expanded public transit.

Christy Decker said that although ridership increased by sixty percent in 2008 – partially due to high gas prices — funding has not grown accordingly.

“Basically what it boils down to is a lack of funding. You know we’re not able to make those expansions right now,” said Decker.

Terre Haute is also experiencing an influx of patronage.  Brad Miller, the city’s Transportation Director, said ridership has increased twofold in the last six years.

Though they have recently expanded hours, Miller said there are many requests for Sunday routes the city simply cannot afford. Terre Haute received a $1.3 million  stimulus grant from the federal government last year. They are using the money to buy two new hybrid buses this year, which use less fuel but cost nearly twice as much as regular diesel buses. The buses are expected to be delivered in a matter of weeks.

Asked if all the cities buses from here on out will hybrids, Miller said, “From your lips to God’s ear.  I wish we could do that. Whether or not the fleet goes completely hybrid over the next few years will depend on performance of these two buses.”

Despite budget troubles preventing city bus systems from expanding with growing demand, Miller said city buses do not customarily generate a profit—even in a good economy.

“No transit, even in New York City or Chicago makes money,” said Miller. “It’s kind of a quality of life issue.  You either have to decide you provide it or you don’t provide it.  Because no one’s ever going to become rich in public transit.”

Previous: Part I: Public Transit in Kokomo Faces Funding, Physical Obstacles

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