How can Fort Wayne improve its public transit? These two systems might provide a model

It’s no secret that Fort Wayne is a growing community with even bigger growth goals on the horizon. The year 2020 was the fourth consecutive that Allen County posted a positive domestic migration number, and overall, the county’s growth rate (.84 percent) was double the state and national rate (.4 percent). The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is rallying the community around its Road to One Million Plan, which aims to make the region a magnet for talent attraction by supporting transformational projects. 

But as a community grows, one key asset often left out of the conversation is transportation. For decades, public transit systems across the U.S. have not been invested in at the same rate as other community developments and initiatives. According to the Federal Transit Administration, there is a $90 billion backlog needed to restore and modernize U.S. public transit infrastructure and assets.

What’s more, data shows that an effective public transit system might actually underpin the type of population growth, diversification, and engagement Northeast Indiana leaders are eager to achieve.

“Public transit is a proven economic driver with providing a safe and efficient way for employees to get to work, as well as consumers to access food, medical, and other essential goods and services,” says Addison Pollock, Director of Community Engagement for AARP Indiana. “There have been studies which conclude that every $1 invested in transit infrastructure yields $4 in local economic impact. It’s a win for people, public health, the environment, and the economy.”

In many ways, Fort Wayne is a city designed for cars and personal vehicles.

This myriad of economic, social, and health benefits for people of all ages, abilities, and incomes has convinced Indiana leaders, like Pollock, that public transit is worth more attention and resources than it has historically received. Still, the task of addressing and improving public transit in a geographically spread-out system like Fort Wayne's designed primarily for personal vehicles can be daunting. 

In places like Marion County, initiatives like IndyGo have helped move the needle in tangible ways on public transit in the state. 

So who’s filling gaps in Fort Wayne’s current public transit system, and what can we learn from other Indiana models that are emerging so far? We explore two transit systems to find out.

Community Transportation Network (CTN)

A Community Transportation Network bus.


Fort Wayne’s current public transit system is largely dependent on Citilink buses, walking, and bike lanes. Citilink runs most routes at 30- or 60-minute intervals, which can make catching a bus difficult. Bus routes in Fort Wayne use a “hub and spoke” model, where all buses converge from a central station, the “hub,” and travel to various locations on lines connected to the central station, the “spokes.” This system can prolong trips. On top of that, many Citilink bus stops aren’t ADA accessible and don’t have benches or shelters for waiting passengers. 

One organization filling gaps in this system to provide transportation for people falling through the gaps is the Community Transportation Network or CTN. 

A rider and their guest outside of a CTN bus.

Founded by what was originally a transit planning committee, CTN was created as a nonprofit in 2000 to meet previously unmet transportation needs in Allen County and the broader region. Their mission is to ease the burden of transportation for residents, so more people are able to maintain life-sustaining and purposeful connections in the community. 

To do this, Justin Clupper, CTN’s Executive Director, says the organization works with low-income seniors and people with disabilities to provide transportation to healthcare resources, the grocery store, and other community essentials. They also provide transportation to and from work for about 75 individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, as well as providing low-cost transportation services for other nonprofits. 

“All of the transit buses are accessible, and are very clean, very well maintained, and very pleasant to ride on,” Clupper says. “All of our transit vehicles are fully accessible, with hydraulic lift-equipped vehicles, so you know we work hard to make accessibility possible in our community.”

Portrait of Justin Clupper, Executive Director of Community Transport Network (CTN).

To make its services affordable, CTN charges riders using a sliding scale, based on household income and frequency of rides. However, Clupper notes that the organization cannot solely depend on those fares for funding, so they rely on various forms of fundraising to fill the gaps. If riders are using CTN as nonemergency medical transportation, their insurance may have a transportation stipend or assist in covering the cost of the ride, too. 

Still, the sheer demand for transportation, and specifically, medical transportation, among aging populations in Fort Wayne continues to outpace CTN’s ability to meet it. While CTN provided 1,078 trips in their first year and as many as 104,000 trips annually in recent years, greater support is needed to get Fort Wayne residents where they need to go as the population ages, Clupper says.

For instance, data from 2019 shows CTN gave more than 26,000 medical rides that year. Still, an additional 20,000 unfilled Medicaid rides were needed in Allen County alone. 

“We know from there that we could have easily doubled our impact that year,” Clupper says. “The need is there, but we have to have drivers, vehicles, and philanthropy to make sure the trip can happen.”

A rider boards a CTN bus.

Clupper says CTN riders are often referred to them by friends, family members, case managers, and healthcare providers. New riders must complete a new rider registration form, then they will be sent CTN’s Riders Guide, which introduces riders to their processes and helps them make the most of CTN’s services. 

For individual riders, CTN rides must be scheduled in advance, as they are usually operating at capacity, says Clupper. The address, time, and date of the needed ride is then plugged into a scheduling system, which helps create routes for drivers. Clupper estimates they complete 250 to 300 rides per day and are usually booked three to five days out, with the afternoon being their busiest time. 

Clupper says CTN is similar to an on-demand service, like Uber or Lyft. Riders can decide when they want to ride and where they’ll be picked up and dropped off. This type of scheduling can be more convenient for riders than waiting at a stop on a predetermined route, like a bus system.

But expanding on-demand rides is only part of the puzzle to addressing a city’s transit challenges as the population grows and ages. Another part is adjusting the current, outdated systems that are in place.

IndyGo

Citilink buses are a primary provider of Fort Wayne's current public transit.


Recently, Marion County’s public bus system, IndyGo, started undergoing major changes to increase its ridership and accessibility to the community. Like Fort Wayne, they once operated under a hub and spoke bus system, running at 30- or 60-minute intervals with limited hours on evenings and Sundays. Now, they’ve been able to convert to what’s called a “frequent grid” system and operate at 15-minute intervals every day instead. 

As an Indianapolis resident who works in Fort Wayne, Pollock has witnessed this shift firsthand. Based on what he has seen so far, having buses run at 15-minute intervals has been transformative in Indianapolis because it is the threshold at which riders do not need to rely as heavily on predetermined schedules to plan their days, but rather can walk to stops at their leisure and expect a bus to arrive soon.

Bike racks help cyclists make use of Citilink buses to get from trail to trail.

Leaving the hub and spoke model behind can be transformative for the amount of time spent getting to a destination, too. Riders using a hub and spoke model can see longer ride times when trying to make it from the end of one spoke to the end of another because the spokes do not connect except for at the central hub. A more grid-like system allows riders to travel in almost any direction they need, rather than traveling to a central hub and back out. 

To keep improving its system, IndyGo is also working on adding three rapid transit lines, which will have dedicated lanes and level boarding platforms. The Red Line is operating and construction for the Purple line began in February.

Making these changes wasn’t easy. Pollock describes it as, “a long race—one with many steps and hurdles—that we are still running.”

Buses depart from the station at Citilink Central Station in downtown Fort Wayne.

The change also wouldn’t be possible without advocacy groups, like Transit Drives Indy, a coalition of regional partners, neighborhood groups, stakeholders, elected officials, and transit riders who have advanced the goal step by step.

Transit Drives Indy was formed in 2015, with many of the same members as Indy Connect, an advocacy group for better transit in Central Indiana. Indy Connect was formed after a 2009 report on transportation alternatives by the Central Indiana Transit Task Force.

One of the first hurdles for these transit advocacy groups has been creating a source of sustainable funding to invest in public transit. Historically, public transit organizations have relied on funding and grants provided at the state and federal levels for their work. Clupper, CTN’s Executive Director, says the number of organizations using these pools of funding has increased; meanwhile, the amount of funding has not changed recently.

Most counties do not have the ability to fund public transit locally using local income tax. However, local funding could give transit systems more of the support and the freedom they need to make changes and to better serve their communities.

Advocacy groups in Central Indiana realized this and opened up a line of local funding with public support. They did this by advocating for state legislation that allowed Central Indiana counties (Delaware, Hamilton, Hancock, Johnson, Madison, and Marion) to adopt an ordinance that would place a referendum question on the next general election ballot, asking voters if they would like to adopt a local income tax specifically to fund public transit projects. 

Pollock says public support was rallied through Transit Drives Indy’s campaign, which used networks of various business and civic organizations, and carried out a massive grassroots and public relations campaign. 

Lacey Everett is part of Transit Drive Indy, and she’s worked for the MIBOR Realtor Association for 11 years. Previously she worked for Mayor Greg Ballard in the City of Indianapolis, who she says was an integral leader in the city's efforts to expand its transit options and rally for dedicated funding.

“The entire collaborative effort, including the intense education and advocacy campaign before the referendum vote was crucial to our success in Marion County,” Everett says. “The strength behind bringing together so many different organizations that, in many cases, do not always agree, to push forward this effort was what made it possible. Transit Drives Indy (TDI) was also successful because this conversation had been happening for many years. Messaging and talking points were tested. What TDI also did well was push the information out in a very coordinated way, so Marion County residents were hearing it from organizations they know and trust.” 

Almost all of Citilink's bus service in Fort Wayne is operating on a 60-minute frequency.

After a couple of attempts, the state legislation was passed and adopted in 2014. Two years later, the state legislation started a three-step process, in which the Indianapolis-Marion County city-county council then adopted an ordinance placing the referendum on the 2016 general election ballot. Marion County voters approved the referendum at the ballot box, and then the city-county council passed another ordinance adopting the local income tax.

“It was an uphill battle,” Pollock says. “Indianapolis, like most Indiana communities, is largely an auto-dependent, sprawled environment. Voters did not have a local frame of reference of what ‘good transit’ looked and felt like. We were facing a vicious circle scenario. The poor transit service did not attract high levels of ridership; therefore, the system was deemed unworthy of additional funding. However, without a local dedicated funding source to fund enhanced transit service, it would be impossible to attract a critical mass of riders to make the system a valid and viable transportation choice.” 

While IndyGo’s transformation is only in the beginning stages, ridership numbers increased in 2021, and Pollock says the multifaceted economic benefits are already visible anecdotally. For example, he says the Red Line, one of IndyGo’s rapid transit lines already in use, has promoted new commercial and residential developments along its route.

So how can changes like those happening in Marion County be enacted in cities like Fort Wayne?

State legislation (Senate Bill 369) has been proposed to give every Indiana county the authority to hold a referendum to fund public transit projects, similar to what was passed for Central Indiana and allowed IndyGo to transform. The latest version was introduced in 2020 and was authored, sponsored, and supported by a group of bipartisan state senators, but it never made its way to the House of Representatives.

“Without a dedicated local source of revenue, it is incredibly difficult for a transit service, such as Citilink in Fort Wayne, to offer reliable and convenient transit services that can compete with the viability and convenience of the personal automobile,” Pollock says. “Senate Bill 369 that was introduced in the 2020 Indiana General Assembly Session is one way to make this a reality.”

If Fort Wayne residents want to change their transit system, Pollock suggests routine and respectful contact with state elected officials is very helpful in furthering any kind of legislation. Residents can contact their state senators and representatives, asking them to file a bill similar to Senate Bill 369 as an author, or asking them to sponsor such a bill if one is filed again. They can also contact their state elected officials and their staff consistently in support of transit. Sending emails or letters, calling, or even requesting a meeting to discuss transit can help, too.

While it might take some time for transit reform to reach Fort Wayne, Citilink’s new General Manager John Metzinger, says he recognizes the city is growing beyond the reach of Citilink and the community’s current public transit system, as a whole. As such, he’s open to change—even excited about it.

John Metzinger became General Manager of Citilink Fort Wayne in April 2021.

Metzinger says Citilink needs to make changes internally, too, addressing staffing needs before they can make any large-scale adjustments in the community. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about what could be better. 

“Fort Wayne is Indiana’s second-largest city, so obviously we have a lot of needs here that have gone unmet,” Metzinger says. “We do recognize that there’s a need, so it’s not just about us desiring to grow; it’s about meeting the needs of the community. We’re not so much focused upon mode (of transit). It doesn’t necessarily have to be a fixed-route bus. It could be something that looks more like an on-demand service, very Uber-like, if you will. Or it could be working with employers to build vanpools or other ride-sharing programs. We’re very interested in looking at all the options that are on the table to provide efficient but effective transportation that reaches further than Citilink does today.”

This story is part of a series on the 8 Domains of Livability in Northeast Indiana, funded by AARP.

Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne’s Assistant Editor. She previously worked for Northeast Indiana Public Radio and participated in the College Input Program.