The wide breadth of federal and local officials who heaped praise on the Gary Public Transit Corp.’s recent purchase of four electric buses served as a testament to the agency’s resilience as it stakes a claim as Northwest Indiana’s go-to bus service.
Rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic that reduced ridership, the GPTC finds itself charting a new route for a brighter future aimed at better connecting Northwest Indiana communities.
Interim General Manager Denise Dillard is steering the bus provider through a major restructuring as it prepares its search for a new general manager.
“We’re looking at GPTC as a regional system,” said Dillard, who owns Dillard Consulting and has been GPTC general manager since last December.
“For many years, GPTC looked like a Gary-only situation. What we’re seeing is towns like Merrillville have called and said ‘we need more transportation.’
“We’re looking at destinations now, versus just getting vulnerable populations access.”
That’s a marked shift that has drawn support from local officials.
Ty Warner, executive director of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, said GPTC is an integral part of growth in the region.
“They’re a critical piece and they have been the backbone,” he said of the region’s public transit options. GPTC showcased its new fleet of four 35-seat electric buses last week.
Officials said GPTC ridership is up 25% over last year as the agency regains its post-pandemic footing.
It’s just the second agency in Indiana to purchase the green vehicles, which have a service life of about 11 years.
The new buses will motor along the busy Broadway corridor route from downtown Gary south to Crown Point.
“It’s electric. It’s clean. It’s here in the G.I.,” said a jubilant Stephanie Hulett, chairwoman of the GPTC board of directors.
Equipped with six batteries, the 32-passenger buses can travel about 120-140 miles on a single charge.
The buses cost $3.6 million, including $800,000 from the Indiana Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust Fund, a settlement with the automaker after it admitted cheating on federal emissions requirements.
The new electric buses go into service at a time when capital improvements loom on the horizon.
Legislation approved this year calls for Gary to negotiate with Hard Rock Casino to gain an additional $3 million a year for downtown building demolition and for the funding of a new Metro Center transit hub where bus and South Shore commuter rail routes originate.
That project would be overseen by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
GPTC marketing director David Wright said it doesn’t have plans to expand routes to Porter County yet, but legislation approved this year makes the process easier.
Previously, bus agencies had to change their charters to provide service outside of a home county. Under the new law, bus agencies just need permission from county government.
Meanwhile, Dillard and Wright are regular GPTC bus riders.
“For me, it started out as an experiment,” said Dillard. “I wanted to know how long it would take me and to see how the tech was used,” she said.
She’s using the information as she forms recommendations on the agency’s organizational structure.
“We have been talking about expectations of the transit system for decades. Now, we are seeing it,” said Dillard. “Sometimes, need and desire take time to line up.”