Finance Indiana Indianapolis

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

Cincinnati Elections Indiana

Ballot Measures Force Commuters to Evaluate Transit Projects First-Hand

» Second in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The first reviewed governor’s races; the third considered mayoral contests.

Though there are several referendums being considered today in which transportation plays a major role, two in the Midwest stand out as particularly interesting. Voters in Cincinnati and Northern Indiana will be deciding whether they want rail systems in the future.

Ballot Measure — Rail in Cincinnati

Update: Voters roundly rejected the ballot measure, providing a boost to streetcar advocates. Transit proponent Mark Mallory wins a second term in the mayor’s seat.

If the NAACP and the right-wing can agree on any one thing, it seems to be a collective dislike for the idea of streetcars in Cincinnati.

Issue 9 would amend the city’s charter to require a new referendum each and every time there is any spending — local, state, or federal — on “right-of-way acquisition or construction of improvements for passenger rail transportation (e.g. a trolley or streetcar) within the city limits.” While streetcars are mentioned directly in the measure as an example of transportation projects that would have to be submitted to voters, the truth is that all rail projects, such as the proposed light rail, commuter rail, and high-speed rail lines illustrated below, would have to be put to public consideration.

Issue 9 will not prevent rail from being constructed. It will simply engender serious delays on any plans that the city wants to advance. From the NAACP’s perspective, support for Issue 9 means opposition to the city’s planned streetcar line, which they argue will reduce standard bus service to the city’s poor black population. From the perspective of the Cincinnati Tea Partiers, rail service is a waste in any shape or form.

The biggest problem with the proposal in the short-term is that it will prevent the city from receiving federal stimulus funds for the streetcar line in the next year, at least before Cincinnati is able to present a project to the discretion of the electorate. A future referendum on transit funding is likely to end in failure, considering the terrible results of the 2002 Metro Moves vote. In the longer-term, Issue 9 would make it nearly impossible to plan major projects for the city because each new idea would have to first be submitted to the voters — meaning that projects that help only small parts of the community will inevitably be shot down, and ideas that would require large (but necessary) expenditures would be defeated in races focusing on waste.

All this is to say: when it comes to transportation planning, perhaps direct democracy isn’t the best approach.

Re-Envision Cincinnati

Image above: Re-envision Cincinnati, from CincyStreetcar Blog

Ballot Measure — Northern Indiana Regional Rail District

Update: The measure is overwhelmingly rejected in both counties where it’s considered. No chance for these rail extensions in the near future.

The Indiana suburbs of Chicago have been considering an investment in new commuter rail lines for several years now, but only this year have the projects and an affiliated tax come up for a vote. The creation of the Northern Indiana Regional Rail District would enforce an extra 0.25% income tax on citizens of the affected jurisdictions and eventually pay for more bus service and an extension of the South Shore Line, which heads directly into Chicago.

Initially the plan was to build two new stub-ends for the South Shore Line, one south to Lowell in Lake County and another southeast to Valparaiso in Porter County, in addition to expanding bus service to LaPorte and St. Joseph Counties. These projects are being advanced by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. All four jurisdictions were supposed to submit the proposal to voters as per state law; tax increases and affiliated transit improvements would be distributed county-by-county, so if one county didn’t approve the measure, the others would not be affected.

Yet Lake and LaPorte Counties have chosen not to move forward with the referendum because of the costs associated with holding the special election, which will be expensive and likely attract few voters. Even if voters in St. Joseph and Porter County do approve the referendum, then, it is unclear how the rail expansion would play out, since it would require new construction through Lake County. Bus service, though, could be easily improved with new revenue.Northern Indiana Transit District Proposed Service Map

Image above: Proposed Northern Indiana Commuter Rail Route Extensions, from Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority