Transit Triangle on life support?

H-A File PhotoThe Transit Triangle, which runs a bus service between Michigan City, La Porte and the PNW campus in Westville, will continue to operate through next spring.

La PORTE — La Porte County leaders have agreed to keep the local tri-community bus transportation system rolling – at least through next spring.

At its meeting Wednesday, the La Porte County Board of Commissioners voted to provide $31,250 in funding to Transit Triangle, the low-cost public transportation service that connects La Porte, Michigan City and the Purdue University Northwest campus in Westville.

The commissioners only committed to funding the agency for a single year, though, ending in May 2020.

The agreement is intended to keep the wheels spinning for the service – which offers fares as low as 50 cents – for at least the next 10 months. 

"By doing this for a year, the [PNW] students who are currently enrolled know they can rely on this transportation," said board president Dr. Vidya Kora.

After May, the county can revisit whether it should continue funding the system.

The board initially considered a three-year interlocal agreement with the city of La Porte, Michigan City and PNW to support Transit Triangle through 2022. But ongoing worries over the service's low ridership – concerns also shared by some members of the County Council – prompted the commissioners to scale back their commitment.

Wednesday's vote follows a contentious workshop involving the commissioners, council and Transit Triangle representatives in June. During that meeting, Councilman Jeff Santana questioned the agency's request for additional funding. 

Among other areas of contention, Santana took aim at the service's ridership numbers – around 6,000 people per year — or five passengers an hour for every 12-hour day the weekday-only service operates.

During her remarks Wednesday, Commissioner Sheila Brillson Matias noted similar criticisms, describing Transit Triangle ridership figures as "terrible." However, like Kora, she believes the program is a great concept – "Sometimes, concepts don't pan out," she said.

"Unless we come up with a different plan, I join the council in their concern – you can't keep funding empty buses," Matias said. "Environmentally, it's a terrible idea. Second of all, there's got to be a better way to serve our community than having empty vehicles driving around."

Matias said the one-year agreement should give current riders enough time to find alternative transportation should officials discontinue the service.

The incoming county dollars will allow Transit Triangle to secure 5307 urban transportation funding, which also subsidizes the La Porte TransPorte and Michigan City Transit systems. To dole out these funds, the Federal Transit Administration requires a 50% match from local entities. 

La Porte County, La Porte, Michigan City and PNW are splitting the match requirement evenly, each contributing over $30,000. The latter three entities committed to their share earlier this year.

A federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant – which only required a 20 percent local match – provided initial funding for the service when it launched in 2015. Those dollars have since dried up, requiring the agency to seek conventional 5307 funding.

Despite recent scrutiny from county leaders, Transit Triangle Advisory Board president Tom MacLennan doesn't see the commissioners' decision as the end of the road for the program.

Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to demonstrate how the changes officials have made over the past year are making an impact.

Transit Triangle has expanded the number of hours it operates every weekday, from two 8-hour blocks to 12 consecutive hours. The service also offers free transfers to Michigan City Transit buses. 

Thanks to these improvements, officials have seen a significant increase in ridership, MacLennan said. For example, this past July, around 500 people used the service – a five-fold increase compared to last year. 

"We are building our ridership, and we find that really encouraging," MacLennan said.

The bump in ridership is also carrying over to the MC Transit and TransPorte services, he said. More riders using those services will translate to more federal grant dollars to help pay for them.

Kora has invited representatives of Transit Triangle to give an update on the figures to the Board of Commissioners later this year, MacLennan said.

Those interested in learning more about Transit Triangle can visit its website, transittriangle.com.

Also on Wednesday:

• The commissioners voted to settle the case of Thomas Smith and Theresa Smith v. La Porte County Highway for $750,000. The case concerns a county resident who suffered extensive injuries when a county snowplow ran a stop sign and struck his vehicle, according to attorney Douglas Biege, who represented the county in the matter. The county will pay $500,000 of the settlement, while its insurance policy will cover the rest. Biege told commissioners he doesn't think the county would prevail if the case went to trial. The settlement is also much less than the damages a judge or jury could reward the plaintiffs, he said. Due to the large dollar amount, the settlement agreement must go before the county council for final approval.

• Matias gave an update on the Rural Broadband Task Force, a panel the county created earlier this year to discover ways of improving high-speed internet access in the county. Among other work, Matias said the group has decided to rename itself the La Porte County Broadband Task Force. By reorienting to focus on all portions of the county, the group will be more likely to receive state or federal grant dollars, she said.

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