Major Transportation Plan for Indianapolis Could Link Region with Light and Commuter Rail

» Local business group advocates re-purposing planned roads money for transit projects.

A coalition of private sector leaders introduced a major vision for transportation in the Indianapolis metropolitan area today, with the goal of altering the region’s current focus on automobile transportation.

The Central Indiana Transit Task Force has assigned itself the responsibility of rethinking the way road and transit dollars are spent and has put forward a proposal backed by the city’s corporate forces. By advancing a program supported by the private sector and developed after a serious consideration of the economic side-effects, the Task Force hopes it will be able to move forward more successfully than have similar projects proposed by public sector actors.

The primary components of the Task Force’s $1.2 billion strategy for improved transit in the metro region are rail-based: a 17-mile commuter rail line northeast from downtown to Fishers to be completed in five years; an 11-mile commuter rail line south from downtown to Greenwood, ready in a decade; and a 17.5-mile mile light rail line running east-west along Washington Avenue from the Airport to Cumberland through downtown, to be built by 2025. The Task Force will also present proposals for increased bus operations throughout the region and the construction of toll lanes (with express bus service) on several of the area’s major highways. Work could begin in 2012.

Financing would come from a mix of sources: $600 million diverted from federal and state highway funds and about the same from a new regional sales tax that would be judged by voters in a November 2011 referendum. The exact components of the plan could be altered after a public review being undertaken by a new group called the IndyConnect Initiative.

The Task Force’s proposal is relatively timid: while it suggests $1.2 billion in funding for transit, that’s over a twenty-five year period. In the same time, the nine-county Indianapolis region will spend $8.3 billion on road construction and expansion, projects that will only encourage automobile traffic and dissuade people from using the transit system. But after a plan to build a single line — the aforementioned commuter line to Fishers, priced at just $160 million — failed last year because a lack of support from the state legislature, today’s proposal looks ambitious.

Indianapolis is the 14th largest city in the country, but it ranks 100th in transit usage: it needs improvement in public transportation now.

To a conservative state legislature, the degree of support for transit suggested by a group of businesspeople may encourage a change of stance towards public transportation. Not only will the state government have to vote to allow the proposed tax referendum to occur in the first place, but it will also likely be asked to contribute to the construction and maintenance of the transit system as it develops.

The downside of the Task Force’s recommendations is that they are too modest: Indianapolis will never see a significant mode share change when the first light rail line won’t be completed for fifteen years at the earliest and highway construction continues (almost) apace. The two commuter lines advocated for earlier construction — picked because of their lower per-mile price and easier implementation — would offer services on single tracks at peak hours only and with low frequencies. That kind of operation, however, has been shown to attract low ridership: Nashville’s Music City Express gets about half of its initially predicted daily riders, three years after opening; Portland’s Westside Express Service (WES) carries about 1,000 daily customers, compared to the 4,600 originally estimated by the system’s planners (by 2020).

The east-west light rail line, traveling along Washington Street, would hit some of the city’s densest areas east of downtown, and its service offer — frequent and all-day — will make it far more attractive to the average rider than the commuter lines. But its 17.5-mile length will likely make it more expensive alone than the $1.2 billion the Task Force seems to think it will cost to build all of the transit offerings it suggests for Indianapolis. The region will have to make more sacrifices in its road expansion plans if it intends to move forward with this project.

Meanwhile, the city’s complete lack of geographic constraints makes it less than ideal for transit, unlike, say, Seattle or Madison, which feature chokepoints where traffic increases and fixed-guideway capacity works well in competition with car traffic. High level of decentralization and a lack of effective zoning controls will similarly handicap any major transit project.

Indianapolis is a large and growing metropolis and it needs infrastructure around which to orient development. This newest plan for the region’s transportation future is a step in the right direction, but it remains far too automobile-oriented, with a number of proposals that simply won’t attract enough patronage to reorient the area’s vision of how to develop and how to get around.

Image above: Central Indiana Transit Plan, from IndyConnect Initiative

36 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Jake

    For a city that’s as sprawling as Indianapolis is, this doesn’t do near enough. And being from the South/Midwest, there’s a lot of merit in saying that this will never happen. Cities don’t EVER handle transportation right around here. Cincinnati was supposed to have light rail by now too. (MetroMoves 2002). Obviously that didn’t happen.
    I guess I’m just skeptical about all of this.

    And like Yonah said, this is still way too automobile dependent. They need to be a bit more aggressive than this.

    Jake

  • John W

    Yonah – you noted that “The two commuter lines advocated for earlier construction… would offer services on single tracks at peak hours only and with low frequencies.”

    But on the Indy Connect site, they say: “This service could run all day from Union Station in Indianapolis to the near north side and the near south side and with less frequent runs to the suburbs.” Sounds more like a short-turning S-Bahn type service outside of the commuter peaks. Or perhaps two different services sharing the tracks? Presumably the frequent service would be through-running, even if the commuter service isn’t? A bit more promising, anyway.

    • John -

      Thanks for that point — I hadn’t seen that; I got my information about what kind of service they were proposing from the news articles to which I linked. You’re right: having more service in in-town Indianapolis could make the line significantly more useful.

      That said, if that kind of service were to be offered, you’d need double-tracking, much larger stations, higher standards of train control, and more trains. I highly doubt that’s included in the $1.2 billion number, along with light rail and express buses and the toll lanes. Considering evidence from other cities, it would be impossible.

      • How long would each of the runs “to the near north side” and “to the near south side” take? On a rigid timetable, a single track line with an island platform at Union Station could support a service with a frequency of the longer of the two round trips.

        Whether that frequency is “frequent” might depend on the depth of experience with rail services. A 10 minute frequency is what I would call “very frequent” – at 10 minutes on MARTA in Atlanta, I never looked at the timetable. A 15 minute frequency is what I would call “fairly frequent” – in Sydney, I checked the timetable for the next train even on lines where they ran 15 minutes apart.

  • Nice article.

    The amazing thing is that all this road expansion has been in our long-term plan, and that it has actually been cut down in order to accommodate transit. From this article:

    While there have been no shortage of fanciful rail, bus and highway schemes over the years, all have stopped dead over how to raise hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars to pay for them.

    The task force offers ideas beyond the dubious concept of toll-road revenue. Another is to expand current roadway investments at a “slightly lower rate” than envisioned in the city and state’s 25-year regional transportation plan. Instead, total investment would be reduced by about $600 million, to $8.3 billion—with the savings shifted to the other transportation infrastructure proposals.

    I’ve lived in Indy for 11 years now, and this is the first serious proposal I’ve seen. I’m also concerned about the road expansions and wonder if this will go far enough, but it’s a start.

  • ColoZ

    Indianapolis is the 14th largest city in the country, but it ranks 100th in transit usage

    This is likely true but misleading. The city of Indianapolis encompasses essentially its entire metropolitan area plus a fair amount of open farmland. I am sure that if you drew city limits that were more typical of Midwestern cities (say, encompassing the central 40% of the metro population) you would see Indianapolis’s transit usage would be not be so different from that of comparably-sized regions (say Louisville, Columbus, or Kansas City).

    • ColoZ -

      Well, yes, Indianapolis encompasses a large percentage of the metro area. But the metro is still the 33rd largest in the country, and growing quickly. In terms of transit use, still looks pretty grim.

    • cdc guy

      Indiananpolis proper (combined city-county, ~800K) has less than half of the MSA (~1.7 million) and less than 40% of the CSA population (over 2 million). That means there’s more than “open farmland” around the city; the north-suburban Hamilton County is one of the fastest-growing in the US.

  • Sam K

    It doesn’t make sense to me that on one side they want to build rail and bus lines, and on the other they want to expand highways. The two seem contradictory to each other.

    Do you think it is included in the scope of the project so anti-public transit voters won’t have a bitter pill to swallow when they mention raising taxes? A significant toll-both fee could push drivers into public transit, but I think it will turn into more of a hindrance than a tool to get people off highways.

    The public transit campaign will come down to jobs and taxes. Central Indiana is inherently tax-adverse. The cornerstone of the proposal is the fact that spending $1 on public transit = $4 of increased business.

  • Norman Brown

    On the other hand Indianapolis is not surrounded by suburbs and very much controls its own destiny. Buy annexing every surrounding community it won’t have to beg those communities to return sufficient resources should they ultimately decide to build adequate service. Indianapolis was one of the centers for the Interurbans that crisscrossed the midwest until the 1930s. The region is still spotted with dormant right-of-ways for that once great system. At this pace it will take another century for comparable service to return to this region.

    On the other hand, they have a lot of great stock car tracks.

    • cdc guy

      Apparently your last trip through Indianapolis was in 1950. We’re surrounded by suburbs with strip malls just like every other city.

      By state law, Indianapolis cannot annex outside the boundaries of Marion County.

      The plan, by improving bus headways and creating express buslines, will go a long way to building the transit ridership (and ultimately dependence) necessary to support rail someday.

  • George

    is the cross-town line along Washington Avenue or Washington Street?

    • cdc guy

      Washington St. is where the light-rail line would be. It is historic National Road/US40, the city’s “alpha” east-west street. Some of the densest city neighborhoods are east of downtown, a mile north and south of Washington.

  • Woody

    Successful Light Rail projects seem to be highly contagious, but none of the Midwestern cities has yet caught the bug.

    Consider cities on the Pacific Coast, the Mountain West, even Texas, perhaps starting with San Diego — L.A., San Jose, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City. Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston. And the few remaining Western cities without one all seem to be wishing for some kind of rail system.

    Older cities in the Midwest and Northeast have been resistant. Minneapolis has one highly successful line, but only one so far. Pittsburgh might get infectious after its trains break out from under the Allegheny to the North Shore.

    When Light Rail finally arrives at one of the cities east of the Mississippi, I predict a widespread outbreak of rail envy syndrome. All the others will want to have what [city not yet known] will be boasting. That’s when Indianapolis will be able to build these lines.

    But until the Next Big Success Story for Rail sets an example nearby, the politicians and the voters Back East just aren’t that much into it.

    • simple

      St Louis’ two LRT lines haven’t exactly been a failure — and it’s the closest New Start LRT city to Indy.

      • Woody

        S Louis’ Light Rail Lines have so far failed to impress the voters of the County, who recently again turned down the opportunity to put taxes behind further expansion.

    • Nathanael

      Minneapolis is close to committing to a second (and more important) light rail line, the St. Paul-Minneapolis line, and also built a commuter rail line. There’s also a third light rail line in an advanced stage of planning which seems likely to actually get built, although it may not be routed properly. St. Paul, meanwhile, is working on reviving its grand train station for intercity travel, and is within striking distance.

      I have no idea whether the Twin Cities will serve as an example for others in the Midwest; they never seem to, except in Wisconsin. But they will be an impressive example within 5 years.

      Meanwhile, there’s a sort of Transit Dead Zone in the Rust Belt, east of Chicago and west of the Alleghany Mountains. On the actual Eastern Seaboard, there seems to be all kinds of activity; Charlotte, North Carolina seems to be the city pointed to by residents of NC and VA as the dramatic “We Want to Have What They Have” example.

    • What are you talking about? Pitssburgh has had light rail for years. Here is a list of cities east of the Miss that have light rail
      1 Pittsburgh
      2 Philadelphia
      3 Boston
      4 Buffalo
      5 Charlotte
      6

  • Daniel

    “Older cities in the Midwest and Northeast have been resistant. Minneapolis has one highly successful line, but only one so far. Pittsburgh might get infectious after its trains break out from under the Allegheny to the North Shore.”

    Pittsburgh, unlike most other Northeastern cities (excepting Boston and Philadelphia), retained some vestiges of its once vast (600+ mile) trolley network. The city was built around the trolley, and light rail would be a natural fit there. I’ve heard an expansion is being planned for light rail to go to the airport and also to the city’s “second downtown” of Oakland/Shadyside.

  • FG

    Add me to the chorus of “won’t happen”. Indianapolis has, apologies to the Hoosiers here, an ugly urban history of exclusion and I am surprised that this was even proposed since it might allow the races to mix (Uni-Gov merged the county and city except for the school districts so that there would be no integration). I’ll be interesting in following this.

    You guys are forgetting St. Louis and Cleveland (and Kenosha) all of which are in the Midwest.

    • cdc guy

      FG, at least you could get your facts straight. The Klan era was a century ago.

      The Indy metro area “looks like America” in its racial profile, and the city proper is as well-integrated as most other Northern cities. The City-County Council mirrors the city’s racial breakdown. Our Congressman is an African-American representing a majority-white district. The (elected) County Sheriff, Treasurer, Coroner, and Auditor are all African-Americans.

      This plan appears to be an honest attempt by civic leaders to move our bus system from social-service provider of last resort into a mode of choice for city-dwellers. I applaud it, and I trust that city residents at least would vote for the necessary sales-tax increase.

  • Chris

    With the exception of Oklahoma City, Indianapolis has to go have the worst transit system of any major city in the United States. Coloz claims that central Indianapolis has comparable service and ridership to Columbus, Ohio. Well, the “flagship” Route 8 – the same route where the light rail would go – operates every 30 minutes the whole day, with the exception of peak hours on the east side where it runs every 15. Compare to Columbus’s 2 High St, which runs every 10 minutes practically the whole day. More importantly, their paltry 28 routes do not even begin to penetrate the whole of the built-up area. Instead of spending $1 billion on rail, Indianapolis needs to spend $1 billion on bus service to ratchet up their network to a point where it can actually be a transportation choice one would choose to make.

    • cdc guy

      Chris, I think the plan does have a billion for buslines over 15 or 20 years, but it’s in operations and not capital. The constraint on IndyGo has always been funds for its operating budget, and this plan does address that need.

  • Honestly, the light rail plan doesn’t suck. I’d quibble that the starter light rail line’s eastern branch should be cut by one mile, moving the terminus from a cemetery to a large shopping center, but otherwise it’s good.

    The north-south commuter line is weird, though. Why are they not building it to light rail specs, allowing electrified, noncompliant trains?

  • Robert

    From the IndyConnect website: “Careful consideration should be applied before providing new roads or additional lanes.” That’s certainly not in the mantra of too many of the higher-ups over there (though it definitely should be). When I was in Indianapolis last November, Washington Avenue was being widened to something like eight lanes. The area has a long way to go in terms of heeling the car culture. Especially in a city as ravaged by suburbanization as Indianapolis, there needs to be an aggressive program to encourage development to center around the proposed rail and bus stops. Or, while outside of the city core, there are plenty of old East Side malls that could be replaced with compact development. Helping a few urban nodes congeal in the area is an essential prerequisite for transit being a success in Indy. I am not holding my breath on this proposal, but on the other hand, I did notice a lot of the neighborhoods east of downtown were being fixed up last time I was out there. I do think demand for transit is starting to crystallize in significant parts of the city. Maybe the winds are changing at the Crossroads of America.

  • Jim

    “Older cities in the Midwest and Northeast have been resistant. Minneapolis has one highly successful line, but only one so far. Pittsburgh might get infectious after its trains break out from under the Allegheny to the North Shore.”

    In addition to the midwestern cities you missed (which others have already pointed out) you also left out the southeastern Charlotte and Norfolk – DC is in the planning stages, Philadelphia and Boston already have trolleys and light rail galore, Buffalo and Baltimore have long had light rail lines and NJ has built a rather extensive light rail network in Newark/Jersey City/Hoboken/etc as well as the RiverLINE in South Jersey.

  • Woody

    Come on. Most of the Western cities I listed already have two or more successful lines, and with others under construction, they almost to the point of having systems — Dallas, Salt Lake, Portland, Denver. Charlotte has one line. One. Norfolk’s line ONE isn’t even open yet. Buffalo’s ONE and only line is a failed one.

    Anyway, I wasn’t making a list of North American Light Rail lines. You can get that on Wikipedia. I am saying that the successful Light Rail systems in cities like Denver and Portland and Dallas seem to have been influencing the decisions of other Western cities.

    Don’t tell me that anyone anywhere is impressed with the Light Rail line in Buffalo or even Cleveland. And at no other city’s Chamber of Commerce meetings do leaders say, “Wow, if we had Light Rail like they have in Philadelphia …” Like in Portland, yes, they do say that. Like they have in Dallas, yes.

    Some cities are models of success for Light Rail, other not so much. The East does not yet have a shining example of a Light Rail system helping to define that city’s success. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.

    • The East has a decent example of heavy rail, plus a couple of examples that look good by the standards of the rest of the US. It doesn’t need light rail as a central transit spine, which is how it’s built in the Sunbelt; it might need light rail circumferential lines complementing the existing subways, as in Paris, but that’s not what other US cities are building.

    • Thad

      Cities in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region of the Midwest are way different from Western and Southern cities in that they are much older and really grew tremendously in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s and built their transit systems early on. Chicago, Philadelphia, DC, Boston, and New York all have much higher transit ridership and are alot more denser which means they require higher capacity than light-rail can provide. All of th cities you mentioned built their systems in the 80′s and 90′s and are more recent and more significant examples of successful systems for cities without rail seeking to implement their first systems. A city that grew after the advent of the car isn’t going to refer to how successful Cleveland’s LRT was in 1916 when development wasn’t geared toward the car.

    • The light rail lines in Denver run near empty most of the time, it is only in drive time they are full or during events in Downtown Denver. It like all other lines are heavily subsidized. I have no views on this fact either way, just stating a fact. No transit system can be paid from just from the farebox, can’t be done. This from a guy who loves any thing rail,but who is also a realist

  • Nathanael

    Actually, Buffalo’s line is startlingly successful; it attracts high ridership and is cheaper to operate than the replacement buses would be.

    The trouble is that *Buffalo* is unsuccessful. In a city with vacancy rates hitting 30% in many neighborhoods, you’re not going to see much transit expansion. (And the initial design was odd, fad-ridden, and therefore too expensive — it could easily have run on the surface the entire way). Notably, the corridor where the Metro rail line runs is one of the few surviving corridors in the city; get too far from it in any direction and you start to hit blight. If they could find the money to pull the tunnel at the north end of the subway to the surface, they’d probably scrape together the money for the first of the planned expansions, connecting the two campuses of the university.

  • You Bet Ya lol

    St. Louis has a very nice light system and is in the top 10 for light rail ridership at some 60,000 riders per day. The only problem is that it doesn’t serve some of our densest red brick neighborhoods and suburban counties think it traffics crime. Other than that I believe St. Louis is the second rail city after Chicago with about 45 miles of rail in Missouri and Illinois. I hope Indy, Cincy, Detroit, and KC get rail. We are really lacking in this region.

  • Robert

    You also have to consider getting the people from the stops to the mall. Example: I’d expect a rail stop in castleton with a bus running from the stop to the mall/theater/restaurants.

  • Joe

    I am hopeful for this rail system, but I agree that the plan is not ambitious enough, which will not change due to the political climate. I’ve lived in St. Louis and enjoyed the line there, but as mentioned in a previous comment the conservative nature of that city equals a lack of momentum for expansion–also, the comment on integration is apparent there as well, as an early weekend curfew was set in place that stopped runs from eastern St. Louis, which is largely African American, to areas in central St. Louis. I would much prefer to bike and ride that sit and fume, but I can only send so many letters advocating for this/other plans each time they come around.

  • I would hope that if Indianapolis does build a electric rail transit system, it will have the foresight to use third rail as a power source instead of those ugly overhead wires

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