Growing pains delay progress of the Red Line

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Today was supposed to be the first day IndyGo would begin charging passengers to ride the Red Line from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis.

Instead, the bus corporation has been forced to extend the free rides until November 10th when a locally unprecedented e-ticketing system that also will accept cash will finally come on line.

Also, a shortage of bus drivers left some potential riders standing on the streets during Red Line’s free service in September.

“We fully anticipated with a rollout this large and a timeline this aggressive that there were going to be hiccups,” said IndyGo Vice President of Public Affairs Bryan Luellen.

IndyGo’s Red Line setbacks come as the bus system is seeking approval of its 2020 budget by city county councilors.

IndyGo’s Board of Directors voted Thursday afternoon to delay the collection of fares because of substandard service and the inoperability of its ticketing system, but IndyGo President & CEO Inez Evans, with her Chief Financial Officer Sharon Manley by her side, never hinted at the problems 24 hours earlier during a budget appearance before the Council’s Municipal Corporations Committee.

“They met on Thursday. We met on Wednesday,” said Councilor Frank Mascari. “Did they know about it before? They might have but we heard rumors even before the budget meeting that they may extend it because they were having problems with the tickets. Maybe it should have been asked in the open meeting.

“They might have told a white lie,” said Mascari, a democrat from Beech Grove.  “They should have told us all the details, that’s for sure.

“You take everybody’s word and dialog and hope its right.”

When asked about the missed opportunity for IndyGo officials to advise councilors who were considering their next annual budget that the next day the Board of Commissioners would examine delays that could cost the bus system more than a half-million dollars in lost revenue in the coming year, Luellen said, “We work closely with the council office and a lot of these changes are rolling out on a daily basis.”

Luellen said IndyGo’s ticketing vendor, Flowbird, has never developed a system of the complexity required for the Red Line.

“This is their first implementation of an account-based system on a ticket vending machine,” he said. “Because this is a new technology on an existing platform, there are some updates to their base system and we believe that’s part of the hang up.

“This hang up is really about the integration points. Particularly this is a new ticket vending machine this new account based system and they’re incorporating this cash acceptance software.”

Luellen said Flowbird would be held responsible for any anticipated lost fare revenue.

Approximately 7700 passengers a day rode the Red Line during its first month of free service.

IndyGo predicts that by the end of 2020, the Red Line will carry an average of 11,000 paying passengers a day.

Luellen said the bus corporation currently has 80 drivers in an eight-week-long class learning how to pilot not only the Red Line but other standard IndyGo buses.

“Its not gonna happen overnight,” said Mascari, “and in total honesty I think its going to be a viable system for Indianapolis.”

It was two years ago today that Marion County taxpayers started noticing smaller paychecks as IndyGo began collecting an estimated $55 million a year in a newly created transit tax which helped fund operations of the Red Line and other bus services.

State lawmakers, in granting transit agencies the authority to seek dedicated income tax revenues through ballot referendum, directed that bus corporations establish foundations to raise up to 10% matching funds during the first year the tax was collected.

In February 2017 IndyGo Board Treasurer Greg Hahn told city county councilors that the transit system was actively establishing the foundation that would meet that statute mandate which was still eight months off.

This past July the Internal Revenue Service finally signed off on the tax exempt status of the IndyGo Foundation which has yet to hire a staff or begin raising money.

Mascari asked Evans and her staff how they would make up the $10 million in potential funding missed during the first two years IndyGo was receiving dedicated tax revenues without a foundation match.

“We are working with a handful of educational institutions on pass agreements for the students,” said Luellen. “We would have to look at whether those pass agreements would count as a charitable gift and whether that would meet the state statute as a non-fare non-tax revenue. We are actively seeking partnerships with those institutions for access programs for students. I think the question’s still open whether that would count as eligible foundation revenues to meet the statutory requirements.

“The requirement is ten percent of the revenue raised in the first year,” he went on, “and so there is a large order there to meet the intentions of the state legislature. We have identified a handful of entities that could help contribute to that cause but establishing a fulltime staff is really critical to make some good headway on that program.”

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