Last week, WANE-TV hosted a mayoral debate between incumbent Mayor Tom Henry (D) and his challenger City Councilman Tom Didier (R). It gave more insight into the candidates' take on the city's top issues and a hot topic with our readers: public transportation. Watch it here.
When it comes to public transportation...
Here's what the candidates had to say about Citilink, Fort Wayne's primary public transportation provider.
Q: Citilink's service is very limited. It's difficult for those without a car to get around. There's no Sunday service, no holiday service, and no direct transportation to and from Downtown to the airport. What will you do to improve access to public transit and make it more frequent?
Henry: First of all, a lot of people think the bus service belongs to the City of Fort Wayne. It used to, when it was Public Transportation Corporation, but it does not anymore. Citilink is a private, freestanding organization that gets money from the federal government, the state government, and rider fees. They're the ones who determine where those routes are based upon their perception as to where the needs are in our community. Now, there is a board of directors that helps the manager do his job. We do have appointments on that board. City council has appointments, and I have appointments, so we try to provide the input necessary to let them know where we feel routes should be, how often, and where they should go and so on. But ultimately, it's their decision (at Citilink). All we can do is provide them with the necessary information.
Didier: I have to agree the public transit system is not what it should be. If you go to a larger city, like Chicago, they definitely have better transit than we have. It makes it extremely difficult for people who have jobs on Saturdays and Sundays here. I also have to bring up people with disabilities. It's amazing how difficult it is for people with disabilities to even get where they need to go because they've made it much more difficult in how they get picked up. I think we have to take a strong look at what we can do to correct these issues. I've been 20 years on City Council, and it's not something City Council has a lot to put the investment into. It's something a mayor would do, and I would take the bull by the horns and try to make an initiative to get something done on Sundays.
Henry: We don't want to micromanage an organization we really don't own. (Citilink) is a freestanding organization, and obviously, recommendations from the mayor go a long way, but we need to be very careful not to step into somebody else's kitchen.
We reached out to Citilink's General Manager John Metzinger and its Marketing and Development Manager Casey Claypool to hear their thoughts.
Citilink is a public municipal corporation, a special unit of local government separate from the city or county, similar to a school corporation or library system. It’s governed by a 7-member Board of Directors, with members appointed by the Mayor and City Council of Fort Wayne. The Board and management of Citilink recognize that service in our area has been inadequate, with many needs going unmet for far too long.
Last year, the Board adopted a new strategic plan that aims to bring better service to the community, acknowledging that the organization needs resources including staffing and funding to meet these needs. The plan prioritizes our goals, with an initial focus on staffing key functions that were missing or inadequate within our leadership team as well as resolving workforce shortage challenges. We are building a workplace culture to prepare our team to deliver greater value to the community through excellence in our work, accountability for our performance, and a focus on improving the experience for customers. These gaps within the organization have been long-standing challenges, which resulted in a lot of frustration in the community. Citizens recognize the need for improved service—and are demanding it—but don’t understand why Citilink has not been able to show up or respond to their needs as our community deserves. Today, we’re doing a much better job of listening to the needs and being open with community leaders about our challenges.
I was hired by the Board in 2021 to deliver improved public transportation to our community, and we are making excellent progress toward this goal. The challenges are great. While the community is demanding improved service, and we are scaling up to deliver it, Citilink is facing financial deficits and may unfortunately need to reduce service until new funding sources can be secured to support expansion. Meanwhile, we must preserve the organizational capacities that have been scaled up if we are going to deliver improved public transportation in the coming years.
Several problems are at the root of these challenges: State funding cuts and flat funding for more than a decade, policymakers who are unsupportive of public transportation, car-centric community development, sprawl that has located housing, healthcare, jobs, and resources beyond the reach of Citilink riders, and pandemic after effects like lower operating revenues, escalation of costs, a backlog of infrastructure projects, and workforce shortages. Another factor is the local stigma attached to public transportation, in part because of low service quality; a stigma that does not exist in other communities in Indiana. State over-control of service area boundaries and limits on local funding decisions is another factor that has limited Citilink’s ability to respond to needs.
All of us at Citilink recognize our responsibility to deliver improved service. Widespread advocacy from the community is needed for policy changes and funding for expansion if we are to grow. Our hope is that elected leaders at the local, state, and federal levels will partner with us to deliver the improved service Fort Wayne wants and deserves.
I have had conversations with both mayoral candidates and many city council candidates. After the election, we look forward to working with elected leaders to overcome the challenges facing public transportation in Fort Wayne.
In more recent years, Citilink has been invited to the table, and we’d love for that to continue. The more Citilink can learn about struggles and opportunities, the better we can serve. Being at the table, sharing our perspective and constraints, helps us find opportunities to collaborate. As we look to the future, those collaborations will be key in our community's success.
For more context...
Read two of our recent stories related to public transportation: the first on Citilink's status and its needs and the second on how public transportation is a "missed opportunity" locally.