INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Martin Rivers sat in the very last seat of the Red Line bus headed southbound on Shelby Street from Fountain Square when I asked him what he liked best about the new rapid transit system.
“It’s free,” he said.
Not for long.
Saturday is the last day passengers can ride the 13-mile long route from Broad Ripple to downtown to the University of Indianapolis for free.
Starting December 1, two months behind schedule, IndyGo will begin charging $1.75 to ride the Red Line.
“This system is still a ticket system, so you’ll have a physical ticket and purchase that,” said IndyGo Public Affair Director Lesley Gordon. “The MyKey will have a website and an app feature, so you can use your cell phone or a card, load up the card, it’ll be very fluid and easy to reload.”
Someday maybe, but no time soon, as the ticketing system’s vendor has yet to perfect and roll out the MyKey feature.
Flowbird, the system developer, has missed two deadlines — October 1 and November 11 — to start collecting Red Line fares.
The delays have forced IndyGo to extend its original 30 days of free rides to three months.
An estimated 437,000 passengers rode the Red Line for free in September and October, with ridership declining by 10% the second month.
“That we have come off a little bit,” said Gordon, “but those are again natural type of attrition, people getting excited and riding it and families, and we’re coming down to a little over 207,000 now.”
Gordon said there were no weekly November ridership statistics available to determine if the month-to-month decline was continuing.
IndyGo has predicted that one year from now, 11,000 passengers a day will be riding the Red Line.
That number was closer to 7,100 daily passengers who were riding for free the past two months.
While the ridership totals could remain fluid, and IndyGo has a sliding fare scale, our estimation is the ticketing machine snafu could cost the bus system approximately $500,000 which Gordon said will be Flowbird’s financial responsibility.
“They’re definitely aware that there’s going to be some accountability, and they’re gonna be liable for that missed revenue or missed compensation.”
Red Line riders south of Fountain Square headed for Garfield Park said they were pleased with the service and were ready to start paying on Sunday.
“I think it’s definitely worth it,” said Stephen Bell, a veteran with a free pass. “It goes from one side of town to the other, and it’s a good deal.”
“I usually go from Fountain Square all the way up to about 34th and Meridian, and it goes straight on Pleasant Run, and it takes me straight down there,” said Leon Hall. “You had to get three transfers to go where I was going. I take one bus now.
“Actually, that’s pretty cheap really. So yeah, I’d still ride it.”
“I’m wishing it would be free for longer because people be struggling with no money and figure out what they gotta do to catch the bus,” said Dewayne Scott. “It is worth it though.”
During the first three months of operation, the Red Line has faced other struggles.
BYD, the Chinese manufacturer of the buses, promised the electric powered coaches could travel 200 miles before recharging.
When temperatures began dipping below 50 degrees last month, IndyGo discovered the buses needed more frequent recharging, leading to BYD’s commitment to provide diesel generators in the short term recharging and then build permanent charging pads.
IndyGo also faced the challenge of hiring enough bus drivers and fare inspectors to keep Red Line on schedule.
Gordon said IndyGo is putting 18 Red Line buses on the streets during peak weekday hours and 12 on the weekends.
Weekday service is scheduled every 15 minutes and weekend service every 20 minutes.