By mid-2010, buses will be running two routes in Kokomo, making the City of Firsts the last Hoosier city of its size to have a fixed-route bus system.

Thursday, the Kokomo-Howard County Governmental Coordinating Council approved plans to start the new bus system as soon as federal stimulus funds are approved.

Local planning officer Larry Ives is seeking more than $1 million in stimulus funding, most of which will be used to purchase and renovate the former downtown Bureau of Motor Vehicles branch.

The remainder of the money will be used to purchase buses and pay part of the first year’s operating expenses, Ives said.

At Thursday’s policy board meeting, Kokomo resident Benita Garner said a bus system would be a godsend.

“I moved here in 2006, and I’ve never lived anyplace where there is no public transportation,” Garner said. “I’ve been walking just about everywhere.”

The Kokomo urban area does have a public transit system. Seniors and the disabled can use the Senior Bus Service for free, and everyone else can receive subsidized cab rides through the First City Rider program.

But Kokomo’s use of public transportation lags behind every other similarly sized Indiana city.

Last year, the First City program provided just more than 87,000 rides, and the Senior Bus handled just less than 57,000.

Those numbers compare poorly with Columbus — a smaller city — which offers a fixed-route bus service.

Columbus spent $700,000 less on public transportation than Kokomo, yet handled 106,000 more rides.

Two separate studies — in 2002 and 2008 — have recommended at least adding some fixed bus routes to Kokomo’s transportation mix. The 2002 study estimated adding a fixed-route bus service would double the number of rides per year.

Thursday, Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight made it clear he’s very much in favor of bringing bus routes back to Kokomo.

When Ives mentioned that Kokomo is “moving people much cheaper than anyone else,” Goodnight replied, “But we’re not moving very many of them.”

Rhino Taxi attorney Mark Hurt came to the meeting with a survey of First City Rider users. Goodnight said people who need public transportation — but who can’t afford $8 to take a subsidized cab ride round trip — should also be surveyed.

“I don’t know if the survey gives you a true pulse of the community,” Goodnight said.

The question of adding bus service has been circulating since Ives presented a plan to begin a publicly funded taxi service in August.

That plan wasn’t well-received by the city administration, in particular, and Goodnight indicated he’d prefer using some of the stimulus money to add bus service.

Marion, Terre Haute, Columbus, Hammond, Michigan City, Elkhart, Anderson, Lafayette, Bloomington, Muncie and Richmond all have fixed-route bus service.

Kokomo is the only city that pays private cab companies a subsidy to provide rides, according to a transit comparison compiled by Ives.

Thursday, Goodnight expressed a hope that a “hybrid” transit system — utilizing the Senior Bus Service, First City Rider and a fixed-route bus system — will better meet the community’s needs.

The bus service, as currently planned, will run from about 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.

It’s possible that in the future, if the bus service is more popular than the First City Rider program, some of the funding now funneled to First City will be diverted to the bus service, officials said. It’s also possible that in the future, First City may only run after-hours.

Right now, all of those details have yet to be worked out.

Thursday’s council vote simply gave Ives the authority to apply for federal funds. If the funds are approved, Ives said he expects to take delivery of buses early next year.

Fares would either be free, or nominal, no more than $1.

• Scott Smith is a Kokomo Tribune staff writer. He may be reached at 765-454-8569 or via e-mail at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com

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