IndyGo admits stumbling start to Red Line launch

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Republican City-County Councilor Michael-Paul Hart asked IndyGo CEO & President Inez Evans a simple question and received a complicated answer.

“Are you satisfied with those buses?” Hart asked.

“Wow,” exclaimed Evans. “Yes and no.”

The IndyGo boss was testifying before the City-County Council’s Municipal Corporations Committee and was asked about the launch of the five-month-old Red Line service and her plans for the construction of the companion Purple Line starting next year.

At the heart of the Red Line and its 13.1 mile run from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis is a fleet of new generation Chinese-built electric buses.

“The total acquisition for the 31 buses was approximately $40 million,” said Evans. “A portion of that are federal dollars as well as our local commitment as well. We have not paid BYD for those buses. We have had them in our possession for over a year. They have requested payment but we have reminded them that they signed a contract with IndyGo to produce a bus that could go 275 miles. That bus is not doing that at this time.”

On their best days last fall, when Red Line service was free and the weather was warm, the BYD buses averaged 200-250 miles between charges, far short of the 275-mile average promise and likely above what the buses are getting now that wintertime temperatures in Indianapolis often dip below freezing.

And in the future, said Inez, if IndyGo follows up on its option to buy another 75 BYD buses, the transit system will have to pay for auxiliary diesel heaters to keep riders warm.

“Lessons learned. That was one of them,” she confessed. “Make sure you have an auxiliary diesel heater on the buses.”

BYD buses already on the streets this winter can’t be retrofitted for the add-on heaters to pump warm air into the cabin so the vehicle’s power system is drained further to keep passengers comfortable, further leading to decreased route mileage before the bus must be recharged at temporary charging stations because permanent charging stations at BYD’s expense have not yet been built.

“That $4 million expenditure is on them,” said Evans. “It is not on IndyGo to put that permanent solution in place. We will wait until that permanent solution is in place to test to see that we can get 275 miles and not pull buses on and off the route. Once we have confirmed that we will and they have met all their other contractual things, then we can render payment but not until that time.”

IndyGo’s future purchases of BYD buses to assure uniformity across the system may be complicated by a recent provision inserted in a defense spending bill before Congress to bar the expenditure of any federal money by local transit agencies to buy the Chinese-made buses starting in 2022.

“If we use local dollars to purchase those vehicles after the two years, we are subject to be penalized on our federal dollars side,” Evans warned the councilors, citing a provision that would put future federal support for other IndyGo plans in doubt. “We’re working in parallel to bring in the only other American manufacturer of an electric 60-foot coach here to Indianapolis so we can take a look at it and kick the tires talk about pricing and see how it can fit into our infrastructure.”

That company would be New Flyer Industries of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

“The New Flyer vehicle that is the other electric bus 60-foot will only go between 130 miles to 150,” said Evans. “The systems that we’ve called said its closer to the 130 and below. So we would have to install additional infrastructure in the field for those buses to get a fast charge to get them to go a longer distance.

Evans said the New Flyer buses cost more than the $1.2 million BYD vehicles and have an insufficient parts supply chain.

“We’re at this crossroads that BYD does have a greater range even though it's not meeting 275,” said Evans, “and to go to a bus that goes 130 miles, that’s the difficult decision.”

Councilors complained they were unhappy with the dirty, cluttered and non-functioning conditions of some of the new bus stations along the Red Line route.

Evans agreed, citing faulty real-time signage for waiting riders, graffiti painted on the stops, the lack of daily cleaning schedules, the challenge to stock spare parts and the inability to centrally monitor heating and water service at the stations.

“I, too, have seen the stations and they are not up to the standard that I care to support,” said Evans.

The number of Hoosiers choosing to ride the Red Line has slumped since its free rollout September 1st.

IndyGo’s statistics show an average of 8212 trips taken in September, decreasing to 6685 per day in October, 5992 every day in November and bottoming out to 4194 daily in December when the Red Line finally started charging passengers.

January’s numbers are not yet in.

“From September to December they saw a 47% decline in ridership?” asked Republican Councilman Brian Mowery. “I can’t imagine that you’re hitting the goal of 11 thousand riders a day.”

When challenged on the daily ridership totals versus long-held predictions, Evans unveiled IndyGo’s new definition of Red Line statistical success.

“The 11 thousand riders a day was a combination of the Red Line plus the grid network redesign being put in place,” said Evans, referring to IndyGo’s planned replacement of its spoke-and-hub system of routes with a grid system. “As we have discussed just recently that the redesign is not going to go into place until June, so that is when both of the systems were put together for that 11 thousand, sir.”

No.

Long before Evans arrived on the job to replace retiring President & CEO Mike Terry last summer, IndyGo posted a Red Line FAQ on its website that still reads today, “Anticipated Usage:  Based on current demand and travel modeling, initial, conservative estimates show approximately 11,000 trips per day will be made via the Red Line.”

Evans was not available today to clarify her statement on daily Red Line ridership projections.

The Red Line’s revenue rollout was set back by the ticket vending kiosks supplied by Flowbird which only accepted credit cards but not currency from passengers.

“They sent over the repair receptacle,” said Evans. “Unfortunately it didn’t fit so we still couldn’t accept cash so they then sent out the right units.

“Now as part of our contract with Flowbird, who is the manufacturer of the ticket vending machines, we are seeking reimbursement for any lost revenues during those time periods,” said Evans. “The Flowbird manufacture service has acknowledged that they are on the hook. It's negotiating what that hook is.”

IndyGo also hired fare inspectors to ride buses to manually check passengers’ tickets as the buses do not have a fare confirmation system or bar code reader in place.

“The target inspection rate is 20% of riders and the fare collection rates where we’re successfully collecting fares over 90%,” said Vice President of Marketing & Communications Bryan Luellen, “which is pretty on par with the industry.”

Evans and her team were also grilled by councilors about IndyGo’s failure to timely establish a non-profit foundation to seek donations to augment the Red Line budget as mandated by state law.

“This was part of the whole package that they would create a non-profit that would help subsidize the fare box,” said Councilman Monroe Gray, a democrat. “It was all part of the package and it seems like it has been lacking that it hasn’t received the attention that it needed.”

Six years after the General Assembly passed enabling legislation and more than three years after IndyGo leaders told Gray that such a foundation was in the works, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Foundation has finally been established and staffed in order to meet the state statute requirement of raising ten percent in matching funds based on the newly enacted transit income tax to support the Red Line’s operation and IndyGo expansion.

The transit tax was estimated to raise approximately $54 million during the first 12 months it was collected beginning in the fall of 2017.

The Foundation’s ten percent match must not come from existing tax revenues though IndyGo officials have told councilors in the past there is no penalty for the transit agency failing to reach the goal established by state lawmakers.

“They are seeking partnerships from entities to help fund that and then we will look at all of our existing contracts from advertising revenues things, of that nature,” said Evans. “That calculation was not to begin until the Red Line started.”

IndyGo Chief Financial Officer Bart Brown told the committee that no money has been raised yet even though the Red Line began running last September 1st and that staff had only begun talks with the Central Indiana Community Foundation this week to initiate the process of raising and managing donations from partners.

IndyGo has said that the $96 million Red Line project came in $800,000 under budget and the agency is looking to spend those funds on upgrades and fixes to the route and infrastructure.

Evans said the transit agency was hoping to learn lessons from the Red Line project so that similar mistakes would not be repeated in the anticipated construction of the Purple Line, a companion route that will connect Lawrence with East 38th Street via North Post Road and then eventually hook up to share the Red Line route on Meridian Street to downtown.

Half of the $155 million Purple Line project will be paid for with federal funds and a lion’s share of that money will finance infrastructure improvements including paving, curbs, and sidewalks along the route.

“The Purple Line represents a significant improvement for our riders,” said Evans who estimated travel times will be reduced 25% for riders who are now on the current route.

Construction is slated to begin on the Purple Line next year with completion in 2023.

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