Hi, I'm Jeff Rea, your host for Economic Outlook.
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Planners have been studying transit goals and priorities in the South Bend, Mishawaka, Elkhart and Goshen areas with an eye on how to best serve the public through transpo and the interurban trolley.
We'll dive deeper into that work and let you know what might be ahead with public transit.
Coming up on economic outlook.
MACOG and Transpo recently completed their Connect Transit plan, which takes a closer look at our transit system in the region.
Our communities are connected and what the future holds for public transportation.
Today we're diving deeper into that process and the plan with James Turnwald, the executive director of the Michiana Area Council of Government, MACOG and Amy Hill, the general manager and CEO at the South Bend Public Transportation Corporation or Transpo.
Welcome, James and Amy.
Thank you for joining me today.
Thanks for having us.
James, let me come your way first.
So if somebody is not familiar with MACOG and what you do there, give us a little flavor for that.
So MACOG is a governmental organization that represents Saint Joe, Elkhart, Marshall and Kosciusko counties.
And we are created back in the 1970s.
And the reason we were created by all of our local governments is that there are some issues that our local governments see as regional issues.
And so we tend to focus on transportation, community development and then sustainability.
Those are those kind of three areas that we focus on in helping serve our local governments, kind of address those regional issues.
And Amy, if somebody is not familiar with Transpo, tell us a little bit about transpo.
Transpo is the public transportation provider for both the cities of South Bend and Mishawaka.
And we also partner with MACOG in the inner urban trolley to operate a joint route between downtown Mishawaka and Elkhart.
People are usually most familiar with our traditional fixed route bus service, but we also offer paratransit service for individuals in our community that may have a disability and aren't able to ride the fixed route bus.
So those are two primary types of service.
Amy, let me stay with you for a second.
Talk to us a little bit about just public transportation in general, kind of what's happening in the space, even like any trends and anything, we need to help us become experts on what's going on on public transportation these days.
Public transportation, like a lot of industries, have kind of gone through a challenging couple of years.
You know, we locally, prior to COVID, we had actually seen our ridership starting to increase.
We had five months of consecutive ridership increases heading into March of 2020.
The pandemic was very challenging for transit systems.
We saw our ridership drop down significantly, which was a trend across the country.
We're still recovering.
You know, pre prior to COVID, we did about 1.5 million rides a year.
We dropped down about 40% during COVID.
However, we're seeing it come back and it's coming back slowly.
But it's there's a lot of positive momentum.
We finished 2022 back over a million, about a million, 85,000 rides.
So we're moving in the right direction, but we're also really focused on the future of public transportation and ensuring that we are serving our communities in the best way possible.
We've had a lot of exciting opportunities with expanding some of our ridership programs with schools and universities in the area.
So there's a lot of positive momentum.
We're also challenged like a lot of industries with hiring right now, we have a lot of open positions and some of that has impacted our service levels that we're able to maintain in the community.
Great, James let me come back your way.
Talk about the planning piece is really core to what you do.
As Amy mentioned, you partner on the inner urban trolley and on other things.
Talk to us a little bit about just sort of what MACOG is doing in the transit space.
So when it comes to transit, one of the unique things that MACOG does is that we actually do oversee the interurban trolley, which is a five route system over in Elkhart and Goshen.
But one of those unique routes that we have is our Yellow line, which runs from Mishawaka and goes into downtown Elkhart and we were able to jointly operate that and really launched some improvements to that, working in partnership with transpo.
And that's been in place since about 2019.
But really coming out of the pandemic, we thought that it would be really important based on all the disruption that had occurred around public transit, to take a deep dive into how those routes, whether they're transpo routes or interurban trolley routes are operating, where are there maybe some efficiencies to be gained and how do we start to plan for the future?
Right now, I appreciate.
And so I think that Segways into really a big piece of this conversation is wanting to talk about this planning process that both of you have been undertaking.
I mentioned the Connect plan a little bit.
How about James?
We were about to come back your way.
How about a high level kind of overview of of this connect plan, you know, kind of what you've been doing.
Have you tried to get input?
Just give us a feel for what gone into that plan.
So starting back in around March of 2022, we both Transpo and MACOG joined together to do this transit plan and it's really a study of how those routes currently work, where are there miseed opportunities, What should we be thinking about in the future?
And there was a set of visions that were created working with the public, doing a lot of engagement with our riders and a lot of our stakeholders.
There were two visions created one that was focused on short term and then one that is focused on if we chose to invest more in public transit, what could public transit in this area look like long term?
So kind of a short two year plan for implementation on some of the short term stuff and then a longer looking plan for looking into the future.
Amy, let me come your way from the from the from the operator perspective.
So my guess is you're sort of annually looking at your plan and how you service your customers.
And some of this this is a little bit deeper dive.
Maybe it's happened in recent years.
Share some perspective on the Connect plan and how you've been involved there.
So this was really a little bit of a unique opportunity for us to partner with MACOG and really take the deep dive on a regional level.
Whereas in the past, transpo, it's been over ten years since we took a deep dive looking at everything.
Obviously we're reviewing our routes on a regular basis, taking public feedback, operator feedback.
But this was really, like James said, an opportunity for us to look closely at everything, analyze our current ridership, ensure that routes are operating as efficiently as possible, and make sure that we're really serving those key areas in the community.
So, you know, one of the key things about this plan was really engaging the public.
The public was engaged throughout the entire process That also included feedback from our employees and operators and also the business community as well to to make sure that we we know what those needs are and that this plan will address that both in the immediate future, but also a longer term.
Amy, I'll stay with you for a second.
And so you mentioned this engagement feedback.
Obviously, you're probably talking to people who are regular customers who are very familiar with your system.
You probably talking to people who have no idea or haven't been on a bus for a few years.
Share A little bit about just sort of the the sentiment from the public as you're going through this planning process.
And you're right.
You know, we did spend a lot of time talking to our current riders to get their feedback.
They're the ones that are out there using the system every day.
But it is also really important to talk to the general public and ask them, you know, what they know about transpo, what it would take for them to be able to ride the bus.
Are we going to the areas where they need to go?
But also, are we being useful?
One of the challenges can be if you're operating a route that's maybe only 30 or 60 minutes, it can be a time consuming process to get to where you need to go.
So really addressing that.
Also talking to employers sometimes transportation can be the biggest gap and getting those employees to the places they need to be to earn the wages to support their families.
So it really was an interesting process.
So it's often we rely just on those are writing, but it's also important to talk to those that may not ride or may not be familiar with our services.
Guys, we got to take a quick break here in the studio or and we're going to go out into the field.
George Lepeniotis my co-host, is out with a little field interview to add to what we're talking about here in the studio.
George, let me talk to you.
I'm on the south side of South Bend.
I'm joined today by Amy Hill, CEO of what we affectionately call transpo.
Amy, thanks for being with us today.
Glad to be here.
Tell our viewers a little bit about why we're on a bus today and what this brand new bus is all about.
So we are on one of our brand new CNG busses that was just recently delivered and that we're getting ready to phase in to service.
Well, we phase out the last of the remaining old diesel busses.
So when we say CNG, we're talking about compressed natural gas.
And what is the benefit of that fuel versus a traditional diesel fuel bus?
So a compressed natural gas, CNG is an alternative fuel, so it is significantly cleaner to operate.
It reduces the emissions that we are putting out every time we operate a bus and there's also some significant fuel savings for the organization as a whole compared to diesel.
Win, win, win.
And how many CNG busses do you currently have in the fleet?
So we are soon to have a total of 50.
They are all on property getting ready to go into service and so our fixed route fleet will be 100% CNG within the next couple of weeks and that has it seems like you're making it sound like it all just happened very quickly.
But that's been a long process to get the long time coming.
So our board made the decision to pursue alternative fuels over ten years ago and so we started receiving our first CNG busses back in 2014 and one of these babies caused about $540,000.
So it's certainly not an easy process.
It's taken some time.
We've had to apply for competitive grants to get to where we are today.
Let's talk about the role of the bus in our community.
You service South Bend, Mishawaka, as well as a partnership with Elkhart, correct?
So we work with MACOG in the inner urban trolley.
So we have a jointly operated route that runs between downtown Mishawaka and Elkhart to help improve those connections between the communities, and that helps with workforce development and making sure people are at the right place at the right time.
That connection to jobs and other opportunities is huge for our community.
So but the busses go beyond just caring adults.
We were talking a little bit before we went on air.
There's a dual role here with this bus.
Can you talk about how students utilize the bus?
We have a lot of ridership programs in place, including South Bend community schools, where middle school and high school students can ride for free by showing their school ID.
We also partner with school City in Mishawaka and provide what's called school triple service, since they don't have regular school bus service for all their students.
So the middle school and high school students can also ride for free.
We also in the summer, have a summer travel program where all K through 12 students can ride for free.
We see that as a great way to introduce students to public transportation early on.
And when you say all summer they can ride for free.
So a student maybe could ride to a summer program at Leeper Park or at a particular school that doesn't maybe that has a program they don't have near their home.
So they can ride anywhere throughout South Bend and Mishawaka just by showing their ID, whether they're attending summer school or maybe they have a summer job going to programing at the library, all sorts of things.
We're able to provide those connections.
So as we as our viewers see the bus behind us, in addition to being CNG, it is really a comfortable environment.
Would you say I know that COVID did something to ridership, right?
I mean it like many industries.
Anything that involved the general public suffered.
But you guys are coming back from that, aren't you?
You know, all public transportation systems were hit pretty hard by the pandemic.
We saw our ridership dipped by about 40%, which unfortunate timing because we were seeing of the first surge in increasing ridership in years.
But we are coming back from that.
So in 2022, we were back up over a million rides.
We're striving to get back to where we were at, 1.5 million rides per year prior to COVID.
So as we look at the nature of the bus and how it feels and how comfortable it is for people to sit on it, that's also part of your strategy and in getting increasing the usage.
With our newer busses, it's a significant upgrade from a 20 year old bus.
So we have new seating.
The seating is actually made and manufactured in Elkhart.
We do have additional capacity with these busses.
We have a few extra seats over the other ones.
Our busses are also all handicapped accessible so we can accommodate wheelchairs, scooters on board the busses.
Our newer busses actually have expanded bike racks so we can now carry three bikes per bus, whereas it used to be two.
So we see a lot of folks taking advantage of that as well.
Well, that's awesome.
You touched base on something that's very interesting to me that you told me before we started filming, and that was that was it 40% of this bus is made in the state of Indiana.
So we work with New Flier.
They're our bus manufacturer.
And so actually 40% of the components on board this bus came from the state of Indiana.
So it's our seats here behind us.
It's the stanchions.
It's a Cummings engine, Allison transmission all made and manufactured in Indiana.
So by upgrading our busses and securing federal grant funding, we're also reinvesting back in the economy for the state of Indiana.
Now, one last thing.
I know you're going to be in the studio You're in the studio with Jeff as well, talking more about transpo and some of the the challenges, but also exciting things that are happening.
But it's beyond just the bus right?
There's also transpo also operates a number of stations.
How is that going for you?
It's going well.
So our main transfer station is South Street Station in downtown South Bend.
So we also have a smaller station in Mishawaka, the Mishawaka Transfer Center too.
And then other key connection points are locations like University Park Mall and Town and Country Shopping Center in Mishawaka.
So that's where riders can transfer in between different routes and really get to anywhere throughout our service area pretty easily.
If if you had to kind of identify what the next ten years might bring transpo, what would you say your goals are?
You know, our goals are certainly to continue increasing ridership and making sure that we're serving our community to the best of our ability.
We'll also be taking a look at our fuel feasibility study to make sure that CNG continues to be the best option for us long term and what other resources might be out there as well too.
We're constantly looking to partner with other organizations in the community, whether it's businesses or social service agencies.
Transportation is so often a gap to those resources and we want to make sure that we're doing what we can to make those valuable connections.
Well, Amy, thank you.
Thank you for showing off your new toy.
And good luck with the new busses and good luck with the rollout.
We appreciate it.
Jeff, back to you in the studio.
As I often say, I'm here finding the links that connect our community and transpo, public transportation and getting people around is a big part of that.
We're back in the studio.
George, thank you so much.
I love having you out in the field, telling some great stories and really has enhanced, I hope, I think, our conversation that we're having here in the in the studio.
I'm actually on Zoom today, so.
James, let me come back your way so Amy mentioned that as you're going through this planning process and you're looking at routes and what barriers people may have to work or different things or route related.
You we're talking a little bit about frequency in particular.
Talk a little bit about that as a as a priority.
As you look at sort of it short term, long term, respond to the public.
Help us help us understand what thinking is going on there.
So a lot of the thinking with public transit, especially around frequency, is that we want to have a service that is convenient.
Right now a lot of the service in our region, the bus comes every maybe 60 minutes.
So once an hour the bus shows up and that is basic lifeline service that if you absolutely need public transit, but there is at least an option available to you.
But having routes that are more frequent is more convenient and a better overall service.
If you think about it, a private vehicle, your car is always ready to go when you want it, but transit is only ready when a bus comes.
And so if a bus is coming very infrequently, it is not necessarily convenient service.
And so folks may not choose to ride because of this infrequent service.
And so frequency really provides a lot of freedom and reliability.
And so the vision for the future, say, in the South Bend market, as we look at what type of transit system we want to have, there are some options there where we could invest, say, about $2.8 million, and that would get us five, five, five routes that are frequent and showing up every 15 minutes, which would be very convenient service that our region has never seen Amy let me come back your way.
I probably should ask this question sooner, but but help educate me and those that are watching.
Where where does the money come from to to run a bus system or transit system?
That's a great question.
So we receive funding on the local, state and federal levels locally, it's primarily through property taxes.
That is our biggest source of funding.
The state of Indiana then has the public mass transportation fund that helps to fund all public transportation agencies across the state.
That's traditionally been a line item in the state budget.
It's now moving over under INDOT unfortunately, there has not been any significant investment in that fund in over ten years.
So that's really an opportunity for growth on a state level.
On the federal level, we receive multiple sources of funding through the Federal Transit Administration.
That includes operating assistance also for some capital expenses.
And then we go out and will also apply for competitive grants.
So when we're purchasing new busses, we're just in the process of finalizing our upgraded fleet to compress natural gas.
The primary source of those funds were competitive grants, which will cover 80% of it.
That we need to go out and seek an additional 20%, typically on the local or state level.
Great So Amy stick with that because James was talking about kind of frequency and all this.
As you said, you're analyzing routes every year, trying to figure out how to best serve the public who needs the service.
In the plan itself, there really were two pieces, if you are right, the short term network kind of based on current budget, and then the additional funding network where perhaps you've got some of the frequency things like James mentioned, just touch on on things like that, those two elements of that plan.
So the short term network is essentially a budget neutral.
So what can we do based on our current budget to improve service throughout our community?
Unfortunately, we can't get to that 15 minute frequency under our current budget without cutting service significantly in order to fund that.
But there are some really great options that we'll start implementing over the next year or so.
For example, our route that serves the Blackthorn area, there's been a lot of growth and development in area.
We can make some budget neutral changes to better serve those businesses that have been asking for transit service.
So those are one of the immediate things we can do.
Looking further down the road, that additional funding network, if we were able to implement all that, it would be about an 80% increase of service throughout our region, which would be transformational.
We also know it's unrealistic.
We're probably going to not going to have that money fall into our laps all at once.
So the plan was designed to stair step that so as James mentioned, you know, to really see some dramatic changes, improving frequency on five routes to 15 minutes service would be a small portion of that overall additional funding plan.
So we have the opportunity based as on when we can identify additional funding sources to implement pieces of those to finally get to that ultimate goal of really being able to provide usable service throughout our region.
James, I come back your ways, so you're often the the conduit to federal funds really plugged in and what types of dollars are available from a lot of different parts.
What's the what's the appetite nationally?
I mean, is, is there an appetite for funding public transit?
What's going on in that space?
Yeah, I mean, public transit saw one of the largest increases in growth for overall federal funding with the recent infrastructure bill, the bipartisan infrastructure law that was passed, there were significant increases for public transit included in that.
And throughout really the COVID pandemic, there were a number of bipartisan efforts to ensure that public transit was kept whole during that time period and really being able to allow to continue to wade through a very industry disrupting kind of time period.
So there have been a lot of investments that the federal government is making in public transit.
And so there are a number of opportunities, as Amy mentioned, through discretionary grants or competitive grants to seek additional funding.
And, you know, I think trying to be able to build a coalition of folks is really what we set out to do in this planning effort is before we say, hey, we need more money to have better public transit.
We wanted to make sure that we asked folks what type of public transit do you want in the future, and then build a coalition of stakeholders who can help kind of work together to find those additional funds to make those investments?
And Amy let's build on that in our last about two and a half minutes.
Here to talk a little bit about next steps so that you've asked for public input.
You've got it.
You've put a plan together.
You're now imagining what transit looks like in the future.
Talk to us about those next steps.
So our next steps really will be to finalize the implementation plan so we can start looking at that short term network and implementing those changes.
We would anticipate being able to do that yet this year and then see some additional changes coming next year as well too.
So we'll continue to seek information from the public.
You know, one thing at at transpo, where, you know, we have an updated fleet now with CNG, but we're also we'll be introducing some some additional technology to help our riders and future riders use our system better.
We're adding real time information so you can pull up an app on your phone and see exactly where your busses coming.
So making sure that we are continuing to invest resources into the current system.
But also, like you said, planning for the future and being able to implement those changes when we secure additional funding.
James if folks want to learn more, understand, read the plan, see what was done, where do we send them for that?
Yeah, to learn more about the plan it's just that connecttransitplan.com and you can get all of the information about all the reports and process the final document, all sorts of great maps and images and learn a lot more about public transit in the area or they could always take a look at macog.com as well to get more information about things that we're working on at MACOG.
and generally maybe James or Amy, either one that even though the you've had the public comment, you develop the plan.
My guess is you're both are always open to input from folks like people shouldn't think they missed the window if they have thoughts on how to improve or enhance public transportation, they should reach out at any time.
Yeah, that's correct.
I mean, it's it's never too late.
We always welcome feedback from anybody and certainly from transpo's perspective.
Our website is sbtranspo.com We've got opportunities where you can email comment online.
You know, we're always out there talking to our current riders and anyone's always encouraged to provide feedback Guys well Thank you so much for being a part of our conversation.
Thanks for the good work you're doing to help provide a really important service and all of our communities south of Mishawaka, Elkhart, Goshen.
We're grateful for that work.
We'll look forward to having you back as as this project progresses and that plan gets implemented.
That's it for today.
That's it for our show today.
Thank you for watching.
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I'm Jeff Rea.
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