To Citilink General Manager Ken Housden, a self-confessed conservative in an industry often perceived as "progressive," the answer is painfully obvious: He needs the cash.
"I would look at my conservative friends and say, 'We've done our part. Now I'm asking you to hold up your end," said Housden, who as president of the Indiana Transportation Association is a key player in the so-called "INvest INtransit" campaign that hopes to persuade legislators to boost state funding for public transportation which, at $42.5 million, has been flat for seven years and would be cut 3 percent under Gov. Mike Pence's proposed budget.
But has Citilink done all it can to earn its $889,000 share of the additional $17.5 million that would be provided under a bill introduced by Rep. Randy Truitt, R-Lafayette? Housden insists it has, and makes a compelling case — up to a point.
Not long after he arrived in Fort Wayne seven years ago, after all, Citilink responded to dwindling revenue and rising fuel costs by boosting the standard fare from $1 to $1.25 and by laying off some drivers, eliminating some routes and reducing the frequency of others from 30 minutes to one hour. The move saved money but the impact on customers was predictable: Annual ridership dropped from about 2.1 million to about 1.8 million, and has only recently returned to pre-cut levels.
Many and perhaps even most Citilink riders are low-income people who rely on the bus to get to work, school, the doctor or other places. But people who have their own car or other transportation options don't want to wait an hour for a bus. "In fact," Housden said, "we should be running every 15 minutes."
That extra $889,000 would allow Citilink to restore the 2008 cuts and, he hopes, provide the convenience that would recapture some of those lost "choice" riders.
Public transportation ridership is also up statewide, increasing 15 percent between 2004 and 2013. Even so, just over 1 percent of Hoosiers regularly use public transportation to get to work compared to 5 percent nationally. Sixty-six transit agencies serve 82 of the state's 92 counties, up from 18 systems in 1978 and 39 in 1997 — another reason state funding has not kept pace with the need, according to the Indiana Citizens Alliance for Transit.
And, like any good conservative, Housden insists a healthy public transportation system is good for the economy, accounting for $1 billion in annual economic impact in Indiana alone. The Alliance for Transit says the state's public systems employ more than 3,500 people, and that 36,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion invested in transit nationwide.
That all sounds good, but lobbying is necessarily blind to contrary possibilities. Housden says Citilink's unionized employees have offered concessions over the past few years, especially regarding health care, but with contract negotiations now underway this is the time to explore whether more savings are not only possible but justified.
Citilink's annual $13.4 million budget also suggests alternatives. Although the state provides about 19 percent of the system's revenue, and the federal government 18 percent local funds account for 48 percent and fares 13 percent. With an $18 trillion debt and Republican-controlled Congress, more federal funding is unlikely despite President Obama's proposal to spend $144 billion on public transportation over six years.
But surely it's not too much to ask whether local residents — especially those who use the service — should do more to fund local transportation. Despite the possible impact on ridership, a modest fare increase should not be off the table. Neither should a boost in local taxes, and a proposal by freshman GOP state Sen. Liz Brown, a former City Councilwoman, would provide flexibility in that regard — assuming local officials would have the desire to use it.
But Housden is right: You shouldn't have to be a tree-hugging, car-hating, global-warming alarmist to see the value of at least a basic level of public transit, even in places like Fort Wayne, where the lack of dense population and job clusters, at least for now, makes the service less self-sufficient or attractive to people with choices. If you expect people to get the education and jobs needed to keep them off welfare, you should see at least some value in making sure they can get where they need to go — especially when Citilink may have to compensate for Fort Wayne Community Schools' transportation cuts.