Transit organizations talk local needs, possible Red Line extension

Johnson County residents could see weekend service on Access Johnson County, shuttles to and from warehouse jobs and an extension of the IndyGo Red Line to Franklin, but it would require them to vote to raise their income taxes.

Representatives from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, IndyGo, Aspire Johnson County and Gateway Services Inc., which runs Access Johnson County, met earlier this month to discuss service expansion possibilities and the necessary steps to accomplish those possibilities in the coming years.

The conversations come after a 115-page study from the Metropolitan Planning Organization was published in September. The study mostly focuses on improving service in the northern part of Johnson County, between Franklin and Greenwood, where most of the demands are centered, according to data from the study showing the paths of ride requests.

The study also included an online survey conducted between February and March that received 319 responses. Of the respondents, 95% lived in Johnson County. The study found most respondents wanted not only service in Johnson County, but connectivity to transportation in Marion County. In line with this, 60% of respondents said they favored an IndyGo Red Line extension to Johnson County, while 23% opposed the extension and 16% said they were unsure, according to the study.

Just 26% of work locations are within 1/4 mile of an Access Johnson County fixed route, suggesting the need for workforce shuttles to and from existing routes, something already seen in nearby Plainfield, said Ryan Wilhite, special projects manager at IndyGo.

Any increase in service would require an income tax increase, which would have to be put on the ballot as either a countywide initiative or a township-wide hike.

For IndyGo to create the Red Line, which now runs from northern Marion County to the Greenwood Park Mall, the Indianapolis public transportation organization pushed for a referendum that would raise income taxes by 0.25%. The 2016 referendum passed, with 58% of Marion County voters in favor of it, and the Red Line began service in 2019.

To be extended further south, either to downtown Greenwood or further south along U.S. 31, it would come as a township-wide income tax increase for Pleasant or White River townships. Only townships that border ones with current IndyGo services can raise money to expand services.

If Pleasant Township, for example, successfully passed an income tax referendum and the Red Line was extended to downtown Greenwood, Franklin Township could then pursue a referendum to extend services into Franklin, said Sean Northup, the planning organization’s deputy director, earlier this year.

A 0.25% income tax increase would raise $3.7 to $4.1 million a year in Pleasant Township, $4.6 to $5 million a year in White River Township and $1.3 to $1.5 million a year in Franklin Township.

Earlier this year, Pleasant Township Trustee William Hart said he wasn’t convinced a referendum would be a good idea. Since the township includes Whiteland and New Whiteland, it would be a hard sell to raise taxes for services that only benefit Greenwood, such as a Red Line extension to downtown, he said.

“We’re open to listen to it, but we’re not open to letting part of the township pay for something the rest of the township won’t have any use (for),” Hart said. “I’m not against bus service, but I don’t know where the bus service would go.”

But representatives from central Indiana transit agencies point to the benefits of expanded service.

Access Johnson County, run by Gateway Services, has significant demand for its service. In 2019, before a ridership decrease due to the pandemic, the service helped provide transportation to almost 88,000 passengers, according to ridership data from Gateway Services.

Access Johnson County is the only public transportation system in the county, with the exception of a handful of IndyGo bus stops near County Line Road in Greenwood. The agency is one of the only local options for people with disabilities and people who don’t have cars, said Becky Allen, transportation director for Gateway Services.

While Gateway Services tries to assist all riders, including ones who request rides that deviate from the fixed routes, it often has a waiting list. Additional funding from a referendum would help expand service and serve more people, Allen said.

“We can’t meet all the needs. It’s just that a lot of people still need transit,” she said. “A lot of people like cars, but a lot of people don’t, or need access to transportation.”

Expanded service can not only help people who don’t have other options, but can pull in people who may be on the fence about riding the bus, said Annie Dixon, a planner for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“As you increase the quality of service, you’re more likely to pull in different kinds of riders,” Dixon said. “Some people can’t afford a car, or don’t drive, and sometimes there’s a two-person household, maybe someone has student debt. As you make service better, you have a better chance of attracting other riders.”