It is a given that public transit is an important part of Indianapolis’ future: We can enhance the inter-connectedness of our community, spur economic initiatives like cultural tourism, get people to jobs and give some relief to our environment, all through an efficient public transit system. Elected officials, up to and including Mayor Peterson, wax eloquent on the great opportunities Indianapolis can seize through mass transit.
IndyGo President and CEO Gilbert Holmes: “The kind of minimalist system we have had has made it unattractive to nearly everyone but those who cannot drive and have no alternative.”
It’s easy to find good arguments to support public transit in this city. What is hard to find is money to fund it. A new study comparing IndyGo’s number of buses and operating budget to similar cities reveals an embarrassing inequity. IndyGo has more square miles to cover and more people to serve than most comparable Midwest cities, but has to do so with far fewer buses and the lowest budget of the group. For example, Dayton, Ohio, with nearly a quarter-million less population and a much smaller service area than IndyGo, provides its transit system with millions more dollars and dozens more buses than Indianapolis can manage. Midwest public transportation experts say former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s 1990s overtures towards privatizing mass transit crippled IndyGo, leaving a bare-bones system that isn’t considered a viable transportation option by most Indianapolis residents. “The sad truth is that this company has been in a state of steady decline while the city has been growing,” says IndyGo President and CEO Gilbert Holmes, who took over the job last year. “The kind of minimalist system we have had has made it unattractive to nearly everyone but those who can not drive and thus have no alternative.” A 2001 IndyGo survey showed that 80 percent of its riders have household incomes of less than $25,000, and 77 percent of the system’s riders do not have a car available to them. The federal dollars flowing into Midwest cities’ transit systems are comparable, and generally limited to capital expenses. So the operating budget gap between Indianapolis and similar cities is an indicator of a lack of local revenue, itself an indicator of low local commitment. Holmes and IndyGo board President Gregory Fehribach can rattle off an extensive list of services they would like to offer, but can’t because the money simply isn’t there: a downtown-to-airport shuttle, more park-and-ride and express services and, most importantly, greater frequency and later pickups on its most used routes. Ronald Barnes, CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority in Columbus, was surprised to learn that IndyGo’s most frequent bus routes have a 30-minute gap between buses arriving at stops. In contrast, Columbus has 13 routes that run at frequencies of every five to 10 minutes during peak time. “It’s very hard to get dedicated riders with 30 minute frequency,” Barnes says. “Busy people can’t afford to miss a bus and lose a half-hour out of their work day. You also need later hours these days; people don’t always get off at 5 p.m. anymore. But it takes funds to provide that type of service.” It will ultimately be up to legislators and the mayor to decide where more public transit dollars will come from, but IndyGo officials insist the funds need to be found somewhere. “There is precedent out there,” says IndyGo’s Holmes. “We can look to the examples of other communities who decided they want to have good public transit, then sucked it up and funded it.”