VALPARAISO | When the city started the ChicaGo Dash express commuter bus service in 2008, officials knew there was a need but they didn't know it would grow to its current level of four buses a day each way.
"We've come a long way, and I've learned a lot along the way about transit and federal regulations," said City Planning Director Tyler Kent, who also is the transit director.
Officials recalled how only 20 people bought tickets on the first bus leaving the station at Campbell Street and Lincolnway in October 2008. In January 2009 the Dash had two buses averaging only 13 riders apiece each trip. It wasn't much different in August when the third bus was added and an average of only 14 people rode each bus.
The Dash now has four buses, the last one added in April, with an average of 30 riders on each. For November, a total of 4,628 riders on the buses despite low ridership on Thanksgiving week when as few as 14 people total rode into Chicago on black Friday morning.
The growing ridership means the Dash fares cover almost 60 percent of the operating costs of $58,174 for November. The costs fluctuate depending on the cost of fuel, which was $10,745 in November. About a third of the operating costs is paid by federal transit funds and the rest is covered by state public mass transportation funds and the city's Redevelopment Commission.
The buses are operated by Free Enterprise Systems for the city. The ticket office was in rented space in the Franklin House until a new glass-enclosed shelter was built at the west end of the parking lot earlier this year. The shelter has bike storage racks inside, and Assistant City Planner Taylor Wegrzyn told the Redevelopment Commission one man sold his car and commutes to the station on his bike each weekday.
Like those who ride the city's V-Line intracity buses, the people who ride the Dash are a community unto themselves.
"I think a lot of the commuters have made friendships and bonds with one another," Kent said. "Spending three hours a day on the vehicles, they get to know each other's family and what they like to do and enjoy on weekends."
Kent used to be at the station each morning to sell tickets and see to the riders needs. He passed that duty on to Wegrzyn after becoming planning director and said he misses the interaction with the commuters.
"The hours stink, but you meet a lot of good people," he said.
The growth of the ridership is forcing the city to find a new location for the station. A study is now underway by American Structurepoint looking at possible sites close to the downtown that can serve bus, rail and even air service. The study will be done in 30 to 60 days, Kent said.
For the near future, no changes are planned in the service, such as adding a fifth bus, weekend service or changing the times. Adding a Hobart stop is still in the hands of Hobart officials.
"We'll react to the ridership as we need to, and we will not add a fifth bus if the riders don't want it," Kent said. "We are always open to looking at a train, if the South Shore is looking to expand. If not, we will continue to run the Dash.
"I attended a couple of meetings recently on high-speed rail between Chicago and Columbus to see if their were opportunities for Valparaiso and the whole Midwest. Connections to key big cities are important. It's what business owners want and the commuters need."