La PORTE — A member of the La Porte County Council is asking representatives of the county’s tri-community transit program to consider putting the brakes on their request for additional funding.
Councilman Jeff Santana peppered Transit Triangle officials with pointed questions and comments about the service’s request – and ridership numbers – during a workshop on the service at the county complex last week.
The Transit Triangle is seeking an additional $5,000 in funding from the county to provide a match for a federal transportation grant, which representatives will use to keep the service in operation.
Santana is concerned about whether the council should fork over the money due to the relatively low number of riders who use the bus line, which runs through Michigan City, La Porte and the Purdue Northwest campus in Westville.
According to Robin Tillman, director of Michigan City Transit and a member of the Transit Triangle advisory board, ridership has increased since the program was introduced in 2015, from around 4,900 riders to about 6,400 in July 2018, though she noted the numbers regularly fluctuate.
Using a round figure of 6,000 riders per year, Santana said that comes out to an average of five passengers an hour for every 12-hour day the weekday service operates.
“I’m hearing it from the taxpayers – it’s a loser,” he said. “It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. The ridership isn’t there. And if we don’t continue to put more and more money in, you’re not going to be able to market it [any further].”
Santana shared other reservations about the funding increase, including that transit officials told the council in 2013 and 2014 that it would be self-sufficient by the end of the initial three-year funding agreement between the county, Michigan City, La Porte and PNW, he said.
The county, along with the other entities, initially contributed $25,000 to the Transit Triangle, splitting a 20 percent match for a federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant that funded the startup service.
Although Transit Triangle officials were able to stretch the funds for a fourth year, they will soon exhaust these grant dollars and will need additional dollars to keep operating.
Though the organization will be able to use federal 5307 urban transportation funding – the program that subsidizes La Porte TransPorte and Michigan City Transit – the grant dollars require a 50 percent local match.
Thanks to Transit Triangle officials’ efforts to streamline the service, they are asking each local partner to chip in $30,000 per year, just $5,000 more than the previous commitment, Tom MacLennan, president of the Transit Triangle advisory board, said.
MacLennan pointed out some of the ways the Transit Triangle – initially devised to help La Porte and Michigan City students get to PNW – has improved.
The system has gone from running eight hours per day, separated into two four-hour blocks, to 12 consecutive hours. Last winter, the service also began offering free transfers to the Michigan City Transit line.
“We’ve improved service tremendously, and we’re really proud of the system,” MacLennan said.
While they recognize that buses sometimes run without passengers, the service is a commuter line that must run on a set schedule, regardless of ridership, he said.
“Yes, sometimes, for parts of the route, the bus is empty,” MacLennan said. “But we don’t shut it down, because people need to see that and believe that bus is going to run, or they will not abandon their car. They won’t use the system.”
Transit officials are committed to increasing ridership, though, since more users translates into additional federal dollars. More funding could allow the service to add more stops, he said.
While officials regularly tout Transit Triangle’s affordability – fare is just $1, and 50 cents for students and seniors – Santana suggested that could be a liability.
“The fee is ridiculously cheap,” he said. “I understand that you want to strive for that, but I think it could be doubled or tripled to some degree to generate more money.”
While acknowledging the councilman’s concerns, La Porte Board of Commissioners’ Chairman Dr. Vidya Kora, who spoke on Transit Triangle’s behalf, said the county should continue supporting the service for the larger good it does.
He pointed out that students can use the bus line to get to PNW or Ivy Tech, while seniors can use it to get to doctor’s appointments.
“This is not something that is a revenue neutral or profitable kind of thing for [the county],” Kora said. “It’s to make sure there is service for people who absolutely need it, for the long-term benefit. The presence of the Transit Triangle strengthens the public transportation system in Michigan City and La Porte.”