La PORTE – Organizers of La Porte County's ultra-affordable, tri-community public transportation system are seeking additional dollars to keep the program's wheels spinning.
At Wednesday morning's La Porte County Board of Commissioners meeting, the board granted permission for Transit Triangle officials to approach the County Council and ask for an additional $5,000 per year in county funds. The extra money would help the service provide a local match for a federal transportation grant that covers 50 percent of operating costs, according to Tom MacLennan, president of the Transit Triangle advisory board.
MacLennan, who also serves as director of La Porte's TransPorte service, discussed the funding request and provided more information about how the program serves county residents.
The county is one of four entities that provide funding to the Transit Triangle, which offers bus service between La Porte, Michigan City and the Purdue Northwest's campus in Westville. La Porte, Michigan City and PNW also contribute to the program.
When it first launched in 2015, a federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant, administered through the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Committee, covered 80 percent of operating costs. The four local entities split the remaining 20 percent evenly, MacLennan said.
Transit Triangle now operates off a traditional public transportation grant that only covers half its budget, he said. Representatives are asking the four local partners to increase their contributions to 12.5 percent instead of 5 percent.
Thanks to efforts in recent years to streamline the service, Transit Triangle's requested increases are smaller than the jump in percentages would suggest. For example, the county currently provides $25,000 per year to the service, so the additional $5,000 is only a 20 percent increase instead of a 150 percent bump.
Established to help La Porte and Michigan City students get to classes at PNW, the Transit Triangle runs from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. The two bus lines – one that heads clockwise and the other counterclockwise – make eight stops across the three communities.
One of the key advantages of the service is affordability, MacLennan said. It costs just $1 to ride, while students and seniors pay 50 cents; monthly passes cost $20 and $10, respectively. Riders can also transfer from the Transit Triangle to the Michigan City Transit bus line free.
"I'm looking forward to this summer because kids in La Porte can, for 50 cents, ride the bus to Michigan City, transfer to Michigan City Transit, ride to Washington Park and go to the beach, and come back for 50 cents," he said. "That's a wonderful thing. I wish that had been around when we were all kids."
A lingering issue with the service remains low ridership, a point Commissioner Sheila Brillson Matias asked about. While praising the service, Matias wanted to know about plans to promote its benefits to more residents.
MacLennan said while service representatives have increased outreach through avenues such as billboards, funding continues to hold these efforts back, though they are working with local partners to address this problem.
"We don't want to spend money that we don't have yet," he said.
He also addressed questions about whether or not the service would introduce stops at the Thomas Rose Industrial Park.
Transit Triangle formerly provided service to that location but stopped about 18 months ago due to the small number of riders who got on and off there, MacLennan said. Reinstituting the stop would also add 10 minutes to each route.
"That doesn't sound like much, but it makes a 75-minute run into an 85-minute run," he said. "In a full day, that's nine times that 10 – an hour and a half. We would either need more funding to go into considerably more overtime or subtract one of those nine loops and make it eight. We have to look very seriously if we're going to get increased ridership before increasing the line for 10 minutes."
County Attorney Shaw Friedman recommended the County Council conduct a workshop with Transit Triangle representatives to discuss the proposed funding increase before deciding.