Bus service in the region continues to expand, with bus agencies and communities making a renewed push to better connect residents with jobs, shopping and services.
Gary Public Transit Corp., the region's largest fixed-route bus service, continued its lead role for Lake County by increasing ridership 5 percent in 2013 and laying plans for new services.
Its regional route running from downtown Gary to Griffith Plaza in that nearby community blossomed into the second busiest route on the GPTC system in just its second year of operation, carrying between 7,500 and 8,500 riders per month in 2013.
"It connects areas of our system that have been stable with other areas that have a need," said David Wright, GPTC director of planning and marketing.
The regional GPTC system also serves Crown Point, Merrillville, Hobart, Calumet Township, Hammond and East Chicago.
And more expansion is ahead for GPTC. In January, it announced plans, still subject to board approval, to expand its Tri-City Connection route to better serve locations in East Chicago and Hammond. It also plans a new feeder route that will pick up some of the gap in Hammond service left when the Regional Bus Authority went out of business two years ago.
That new Hammond feeder route will serve Purdue University Calumet as well as shopping centers and medical centers in the neighboring communities of Munster and Highland.
GPTC also has secured $250,000 in federal and state grants to study the Broadway corridor from the Gary Metro Center to 93rd Avenue in Crown Point. Broadway routes are currently the system's busiest, but GPTC wants to make sure it keeps up with demand.
"This study is meant to create a concept for transit that will fit the growth in Gary, Merrillville, and Crown Point," Wright said. "It's basically an effort to right-size our transit system."
In Valparaiso in Porter County, the V-Line system continues to grow ridership and services, with an important relationship with Valparaiso University helping drive the bus.
Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas was a driving force behind creating the small-city bus line, which was greeted with skepticism by many when buses first rolled more than six years ago.
"First of all, as mayor I'm charged with building a better community, and that means there are varied needs out there," Costas said. "In our community there are people who struggle with the cost of a car and they need public transportation."
The intracity V-Line bus service had 124,195 riders in 2013, a 23.5 percent increase from 2012, when it topped 100,000 for the first time. The daily average on the three routes is 340 riders.
Ridership growth on the ChicaGo Dash weekday express commuter bus from Valparaiso to Chicago's Loop was almost as impressive in 2013. Final totals for the four routes showed 55,037 riders for the year, an increase of about 15 percent from 2012.
East Chicago Transit ridership was stable at 183,244 in 2013 and increases are expected this year with replacement of the Nine Span Bridge. It closure forced buses to detour much of last year, according to Francisco Rosado Jr., East Chicago Transit director.
The free East Chicago Transit bus service will start a program to replace bus shelters this year, after upgrading its radio equipment last year, Rosado said.
In LaPorte County, Michigan City and LaPorte continue to lay plans for bus service between the two cities. Service could start as early as this summer.
"We are moving forward," said Bob Strader, director of Michigan City Transit.
The idea is to have buses that can hold as many as 45 passengers leave Michigan City for the ride to LaPorte's downtown and industrial areas then return for riders wanting to come to Michigan City. Purdue North Central also will be an important stop on the route. Smaller buses also could be used.