» With the exception of a relatively cheap commuter rail line, local advocacy group encourages the city to ramp up bus services and improve the customer experience.
Living in a big, dense, old city, it’s easy enough to criticize the decisions of policy makers in sprawling regions like Indianapolis, where a “generous” budget for investments in public transportation means spending one fourth of the amount to be dedicated to roads. But for a place where only 2% of people commute by transit, a long-term plan that does just that can be downright revolutionary. Outcomes — manifested in changing travel behavior and the densification of inner-city areas — depend on how it’s implemented.
After almost a year of outreach to thousands of citizens in the entire metro area, Indy Connect, a pseudo-public organization, released its report yesterday for 25 years of expenditures on roadways, bike paths, bus routes, and rail corridors. The recommendations are roughly similar to those unveiled in February, with $2.4 billion suggested to be spread over 25 years on transit and $8.4 billion on road expansion and maintenance. A tripling of bus service, the development of bus rapid transit, and the creation of a commuter rail corridor would require the implementation of a local sales tax. A light rail line once considered has been put on the back burner.
The local metropolitan planning organization is likely to endorse the recommendations in December.
On the face of it, Indianapolis’ new plan will provide valuable improvements for the city and its nearby suburbs. Average wait times for local bus service will be condense to just 10 to 15 minutes on most lines (down from 30 today), and most will continue to run on the weekends and late into the night — evidently not true in the past. Ten crosstown routes designed to bypass downtown would be set into play, as would fifteen express routes directly into the center. Four bus rapid transit lines would link the city’s most popular destinations, and a 38-mile north-south rail corridor would link Noblesville in the north to Franklin to the south.
This, however, is less than Indianapolis will need to expand transit mode share significantly. And it is less than those who participated in the process to define the plan suggested they wanted. As the charts below show, there was public support for significantly less roadway funding than the proposal advocates.
Nevertheless, the huge predominance of automobile-based commuting in the region may make impossible a situation in which more spending is committed to transit than to highways, such as in regions like New York or Washington.
But that does not mean that the Indianapolis transit plan as currently proposed is perfect. Indeed, though its expansion of bus frequencies will increase the mobility of bus users dramatically, the proposal fails to consider radical and relatively cheap ways to ensure that all those expenditures on operating funds will be well-spent.
Most egregious are the routes that extend north of downtown to 38th Street: The plan would have local buses running on three separate roads — Capitol Avenue, Illinois Street, and Meridian Street — all within 600 feet of one another, run a bus rapid transit line on Meridian Street, and have express buses running on two of the three. In other words, customers would have a wide diversity of choices for where to pick up a bus, but would not be able to benefit from high frequencies due the fact that multiple bus lines run through the area and would be confused as to which bus runs where. Imagine an alternative: Between downtown and 38th Street, all buses headed roughly north-south would use a two-way segregated busway created in the median of Meridian Street, replete with dedicated stations. Anyone needing to hop downtown would know to go there to find a bus every five minutes or less.
But that points to another problem with this proposal: Though it suggests a network of four bus rapid transit lines — east-west along 38th Street; Keystone Avenue between Carmel and the University of Indianapolis; north and south along College and Madison Avenues; and Washington Street to the airport — it would provide only minor improvements for them over regular bus service. Only signal prioritization and fewer and better bus stops would be on offer, and frankly, these should be standard for all bus routes, not just the “rapid” ones. No one seems willing to take the step to argue for replacing car lanes with transit capacity, but when you’re talking about a region that is pledging to spend billions on road capacity increases, perhaps that’s not particularly surprising.
Frustratingly, the proposal recommends significantly delaying the funding and implementation of the proposed light rail line along Washington Street, the only really rail-ready corridor in the region because of its relatively higher densities. But light rail is considered too expensive here. Bus rapid transit would be built in its place.
Instead, Indy Connect suggests a 23-mile commuter rail corridor northeast from Union Station downtown to Noblesville and a 15-mile link south to Franklin. A northwest line to Zionsville would follow later. These could be built at a relatively low cost, since they would rely on existing rail infrastructure and have limited two-track sections. But their utility should be put into question because of their awkward station locations and limited service; though the plan promises “frequent stops in Indianapolis,” it is difficult to see how that will be achievable unless costs are increased substantially, and that will be impossible because of the limited spending available for transit in general.
The rail lines would terminate outside of the primary downtown core, miss the University of Indianapolis, and fail to serve many dense areas of the city at all. What if Indianapolis chose to take the funds it wants to dedicate to rail and focus them on bringing to all of its bus lines the improvements the plan would reserve to its bus rapid transit routes?
One of the bright points in its proposal is its focus on — and spending commitment for — bike and pedestrian amenities in all parts of the region, from the center city to the suburbs. This suggests that these forms of transportation, usually considered the sole domain of urbanites, are increasingly being recognized as good investments for every part of the country.
The sponsors of Indy Connect will have to make their argument for better transit convincingly and encourage the Indiana legislature to allow citizens in the nine regional counties to vote on a tax increase to pay for local contributions to the projects. They face a major potential critic in Governor Mitch Daniels, however, who has repeatedly stated his hostility to raising taxes. In an era of continued economic recession and austerity-minded politicians, that may be unlikely.
Image above from Indy Connect.