Stuck in neutral-Carmel’s only commuter option is running out of funding, time

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Before the sun is up, commuters from Carmel and around Hamilton County are waiting for the bus that will take them from the Meijer parking lot to downtown Indianapolis.

The Indy Commuter Express (ICE) bus routes might be stuck in neutral come December when federal funding expires for the demonstration commuter program. And though city officials and administrators are actively seeking alternative funding and grants to continue with the project, passengers are starting to look for alternatives and wonder what the future for public transportation in the area holds. 

“They called this a demonstration route,” said Sharon Jordan, a local Carmel resident and daily passenger on ICE, wrote a petition to urge officials to try to keep the routes. “They’re demonstration route worked. These buses are full every morning, so why are they taking it away?” 

Jordan, like others on the ICE buses, like the option and are unsure what they’re next step is.  Her only other viable option for public transportation, and one she’d used before, is to drive to Nora and take a city bus downtown, extending her day by another hour and a half.

A public meeting was held in October to discuss the potential options available and status of the buses, though since then there has been no positive word on the future of the system.  For the riders, the buses are a cost-effective and efficient way to get from Carmel to downtown Indianapolis.

Fem Atlock is a Westfield resident and freshman at IUPUI.  “I started riding this summer since I don’t have a car, so this is really my only option.  I’m saving money too on gas and the couple hundred dollars on a parking pass.”

Established in 2007 with funds from the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant, the ICE program was started in Fishers, Carmel and Greenwood as a 36 month test for commuter transportation.  Low ridership in Greenwood resulted in the lines being cancelled and the funding transferred to Hamilton County lines.  The federal grants initially covered 80 percent of the cost, while the cities paid 20 percent that were entirely paid for by rider fees.

Carmel mayor Jim Brainard and Mike Hollibaugh, Director of the Department for Community Services, are confident however that funding that is being requested will come through. Taking into account that it is the end of the demonstration route period and a new parking lot might have to be considered that is less expensive to rent from than Meijer’s, the city said they had been working on finding funding for a long time.

“We’ve been working with CIRTA (Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority) to get a grant for a least of couple months,” said Mayor Brainard. “This is a great option for commuters and helps us with controlling our budget.  Taking cars off the road helps delay road expansion and such.”

CIRTA has been involved with the bus system since its 2007 launch, and while they are more cautiously optimistic, they also believe that the lines will continue.

“We expect a quick turnaround for the funding,” said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of CIRTA. “We want the lines to keep going and have difference strategies.  We’re more cautiously optimistic as some funding options were long shots and now we feel the third option is a much better one.”

For Paula Curry, she relies on the ICE bus service not to get downtown, but to reach Carmel for her job at Summer Trace  Without it, she must rely on her employer to pick her up at 96th street, where Indy Go’s bus lines end.  “I’ve ridden for two years now,” said Curry. “It’s very sad the lines might be cut. A lot of folk are upset and depend on this to get around.”

Curry’s situation like other riders brings to light the larger question for the Indianapolis area about what to do about public transportation options.  Indy Connect is the initiative putting together a full transportation plan for the greater Indianapolis area, including expanding bus routes, widening particular roads, increasing the number of pedestrian and bicycle pathways, and evaluating the potential for light rail in the metro area.  Made up of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, IndyGo, and Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority has spent much time trying to handle the area’s greatly increasing population and far reaches of the suburban communities surrounding Indianapolis.

For Carmel, the plan includes an express bus route and in Fishers, a nearby commuter train system.  Bingaman said the buses would be as a similar as possible to light rail, as there would be fewer stops and the buses could control the flow of traffic using devices that change traffic lights green, giving them the right of way.  Fisher’s has been decided on as the starting point for commuter rail as there are already train lines there.  

“Carmel is the second largest commuter city into Indianapolis,” said Brainard, who also served on the MPO board for four years before Indy Connect was established. “I think to not have a light rail option here our voters would take issue with the plan.”

The potential for increased public transportation options in the city and for commuters is long off and expensive, with several necessary referendums and state laws that will need to be altered before anything can get off the ground, which is not what ICE riders want to hear.

“I would take anything that was available to me,” said Susan Jordan. “I just hope they realize how important this is.”

While other public transportations options are being proposed by Indy Connect, a group charged with finding a variety of solutions to Indianapolis’s lacking transportation options, the plans wouldn’t take effect for years, leaving commuters using ICE stuck to find other ways to get around.

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