» 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