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Column: Despite longer commute, busing worth exploring

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A commuter bus links the northern suburbs to downtown Indianapolis, and another runs from the city to warehouses in the western suburbs. But there is no express service from Johnson County to downtown Indy.

A Greenwood route was ended three years ago because of low ridership.

The Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, or CIRTA, is focusing on suburban bus services to Hamilton and Hendricks counties. The agency stepped in to save more popular express buses to Carmel and Fishers after federal grant money ran out last year, launched reverse-commute bus service from Indianapolis to those communities earlier this year and recently started a service that takes workers to warehouses and the Metropolis Mall in Plainfield.

Other central Indiana communities have taken precedence in recent years, but CIRTA still would consider bringing an express bus route or reverse-commute service back to Johnson County someday. But right now, the agency has no immediate plans to do so, officials said. Plans also call for bus rapid transit service to Greenwood if state lawmakers and voters were to approve the Indy Connect plan for more public transit across central Indiana.

Another express bus to Johnson County likely would require federal funding, similar to the grant that’s helping pay for the new Plainfield route, CIRTA spokeswoman Jen Schmits Thomas said. She said CIRTA would be willing to consider another Greenwood route in the future and that the failure of the previous route to the Meijer on State Road 135 doesn’t mean that a route with a more centrally located pickup point couldn’t succeed in the future.

“Greenwood is still definitely a possibility,” Thomas said. “We’re definitely always looking for ways to improve service.”

Indianapolis bus service IndyGo currently provides three bus routes to Greenwood, including a five-day-a-week route along U.S. 31, a six-day-a-week bus to the Walmart on Emerson Avenue and a seven-day-a-week service that runs along Madison Avenue. Those buses stop frequently, while express services offer an uninterrupted trip downtown. Express services are aimed more at people who are commuting to downtown office jobs.

Access Johnson County also has several fixed routes, including a few that can be used to link up with IndyGo bus service.

The amount of bus service Access Johnson County offers is part of the reason why the regional transportation authority’s focus has been on Hamilton and Hendricks counties instead, CIRTA program liaison Christina Campoll said. Those counties have less-well-established services, while Johnson County residents can take Access Johnson County buses to get to IndyGo bus routes.

Hamilton and Hendricks counties also took precedence because they have large concentrations of jobs, such as along Meridian Street in Carmel and near Interstate 69 in Fishers, she said. In Plainfield, more than 11,300 jobs are located within a half-mile of the loop for CIRTA’s new connector bus.

Part of the agency’s long-term Indy Connect plan involves a rapid transit bus line down U.S. 31 to Greenwood. Indy Connect spokesman Sean White said that service would be similar to a train because you’d board the bus on a concrete platform with fare boxes and real-time departure and arrival times. The buses would travel at least a mile before getting to the next station, instead of stopping every half-mile or quarter-mile the way a city bus does.

But such a service remains far in the future and clearly is dependent on funding. In the near future, more traditional commuter bus service would appear to be the more viable option.

It does not appear the local market is ready for direct service from Johnson County to downtown Indianapolis. But the idea should be part of any discussion about the of future mass transit for central Indiana.

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