Study on IndyGo ridership released on verge of tax hike, budget

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- There are approximately 800,000 people in Marion County, and a small percentage of them ride IndyGo buses.

“Twenty-six thousand folks do use transit and half of them use it to get to work every day,” said Matt Nowlin of IUPUI’s Polis Center, which conducted a study of ridership statistics provided by IndyGo.

The study determined that the 77 percent of IndyGo riders fall into two categories: working age or young persons of color who most often take the bus to full time or part time work in Center Township, on the east side or along the Meridian Street corridor. Younger riders also travel to college or for social reasons.

Overall, IndyGo’s planned build out of its system and change from a spoke-and-hub delivery model to routes based on grids should improve access to service six percent across the city by 2021.

That’s after IndyGo launches the Red Line down the spine of the city from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis and builds the Purple and Blue Lines to traverse the metro area from east to west.

IndyGo officials are unveiling their proposed 2018 budget to city county councilors.

The plan calls for spending $94 million for operating costs and $113 million for capital improvements including the construction of the Red Line slated to begin in January.

Both figures are huge increases over 2017 and made possible by a dedicated transit tax which was approved by voters in 2016 and will take effect Oct. 1.

“That income tax in Marion County is going to generate about $54 million in 2018,” said IndyGo Spokesman Bryan Luellen. “That’s going to be split between capital expenses and operational expenses so we’re going to be running some more frequent service, we’re going to be adding staff so that we can ramp up to the 2019 opening of the Red Line.”

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that bus ridership has declined 13 percent since 2007 and locally, IndyGo’s numbers have slumped and leveled off from a high pegged to the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

“It projects the status quo for ridership because until we open the Red Line and flip the switch on the network we don’t anticipate that we are going to attract a ton of new ridership in droves,” said Luellen as the bus system is banking on increased convenience, frequency and novelty to boost the number of riders along the 13-mile long Red Line route. “This is not a token gesture to build a shiny toy. This is really about moving people and giving people options to reduce the reliance on an individual car.”

U.S. Census data show Indianapolis ranking among the top three metropolitan areas in the country for lack of reliance on privately-owned cars.

IndyGo surveys determined that four percent of the riders were brand new to the system.

“The first time bus riders are going to be your rate of growth so that four percent every year keeps adding up into more and more consistent riders,” said Nowlin. “As it becomes developed it becomes easier for folks who don’t use the bus to try it and to start using it.

“Even if you never use transit, the benefits to more people being employed, more people finding access to jobs at better wages and us regionally becoming more of an economic power in terms of attracting employers and workers through a robust transit system is going to help the region economically.”

During an announcement this week about a cooperative effort to convince Amazon to locate a new headquarters in the metro area, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said a robust transportation system is often a lure to potential employers and corporations.

“Amazon will be examining Indianapolis once we complete our submission at a time when Indianapolis is undergoing real mass transit transformation,” said Hogsett, “so while in the past maybe Indianapolis has been looked at as not as progressive as other cities in the area of transportation, because of the success of the referendum last November and the plans that are already put in place, not only for mass transit but frankly for a broader and more robust transit system generally, so rather than it being a liability, and I’m speaking as the mayor of Indianapolis, but rather than it being a liability, I think it will be ultimately judged to be a very strong aspect in our application.”

The General Assembly locked Indiana cities into developing rapid bus transit systems as opposed to light rail.

Congress has approved $50 million in Phase I spending for IndyGo while the remaining $25 million of the grant is still pending.

The bus system has not yet applied for funding to build the Purple Line from Lawrence and the Blue Line across the city.

Red Line construction bids are still open with the IndyGo Board evaluating the proposals in November, making a decision and entering into talks with contractors in December and breaking ground in the winter of early 2018.

State lawmakers mandated that local bus systems create foundations to raise a 10 percent match of their transit tax income through non-tax revenue streams.

After some initial confusion and refusal to consider such a foundation, which would reach out to businesses that would presumably benefit from the enhanced bus system, IndyGo is now in the process of establishing the fundraising entity.