Bus Commuter Rail Indianapolis Light Rail

New Transit Plan for Indianapolis Emphasizes Frequency Over Splash

» 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.

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