On July 13th, 2011, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission approved the lease of the water utility to Citizen’s Energy. While this has been debated vigorously over the past year and a half locally, what it means is that when it goes through, over $425 million will become available to put towards Rebuild Indy; a program that I have given praise to as well as been highly critical of.
The crux of why I have been critical, is that none of this money has thus far been diverted, at least in principal, to addressing our horrendous transit situation. Indeed, Indyconnect has done much to address this yet with no means of putting shovels in the ground, the receipt of this much money could provide an excellent opportunity for the city to step in and help fund some of the innitiatives. What the Rebuild Indy program HAS done for transit thus far has come in the form of new sidewalks along existing bus corridors as well as funding bicycling infrastructure which also appears in the Indyconnect plan. However, no real money put towards replacing aging IndyGo bus fleets, addressing the large expense of advance engineering & environmental studies for some of the BRT, rail and light rail routes hinted at in the Indyconnect plan. These tasks can be funded separate of the fact that funds for building and operating them have not been found yet and themselves are significant costs associated and required for their implementation. How about throwing some money IndyGo’s way for a real time GPS tracking system? This is in the works, but will not be funded until 2013 per current plans. Additionally, funding a study of the belt railroad relocation could be a good use of the funds. Furthermore, there are a lot of streetcar systems being planned or are under construction in many of Indianapolis’ peer cities.
Would taxpayers find the use of Rebuild Indy funds put towards projects like this a good use of the money? While not as glamorous in appearance as say a newly paved road or a greenfield sidewalk, this funding could go a long way to making Indyconnect a real possibility or to funding a downtown streetcar circulator route. Even though I have laid out a number of suggestions, there are plenty of other mass transit related items that are just as worthy of expense as another road being repaved.
If you agree with any of this, I encourage you to not waste any time and click on the link on the right hand side of Urban Indy. Contact your City Council representative and voice your opinion. Devoid of any real portal for communicating this to the city, your representative is the best pipeline to providing input on this subject.
My recent summer vacation took my family to Myrtle Beach, SC. By virtue of good fortune, and a wife who is accepting of my psychotic civic activism, we were able to spend a morning in Charlotte, NC to take a ride on the Lynx light rail line. The Lynx (or Blue Line) is a modern light rail system that opened in 2007 and operates daily on low overheads.
At this point in my advocacy, I consider it a treat to be able to ride a light rail train. So when we arrived, I was very excited to be able to experience the service. I had my camera at the ready! As we were approaching the elevator to get from ground level to the platform level, a train was pulling away. We took the elevator up, crossed a walk and then the tracks to a ticket kiosk. A speaker announced that the next train was set to arrive in 8 minutes. This was nice to hear! We didn’t even have to check a schedule, the next arrival was in a manageable amount of time.
We spent that 8 minutes taking photos of the platform, the adjoining parking structure (which has a playground on the roof). Before we knew it, the train was ready to pull out of the station and we were on board heading for downtown Charlotte. The time was near 11am.
The train was sparsely populated when we left the outermost station, which is on the I-485 beltline. However, two stops in, it was starting to turn into a standing room only environment. The closer we got, the more packed it got. There were people of ALL ethnic backgrounds on the train. A predominantly black population was on board, but many Hispanic and whites were aboard as well. I spoke with one man who asked if I was local and told him I was from Indy. I asked how he liked having the train and he commented about his broken car and how the train is a godsend for him to be able to ride. Another woman commented that she was anxious for the extension of the existing line to the NE side of the region.
We did not get off on any of the stations along the way but I managed to step out of the train and snap some photos of property surrounding the stations along the way. The outer stations have more park & rides compared to the inner stations. In fact, the two outer stations are solely park & ride. There seemed to be little indication that TOD had taken hold around these stations. However, the closer to downtown the train travelled, the more TOD seemed to be getting a toe hold. Additionally, less parking lots surrounded these stations compared to the outer stations.
We reached the downtown transit center station which was the next to last station on the line. This station let off in the heart of downtown Charlotte next to where the Bobcats play. In addition to that structure, there is a large bus station at ground level adjacent to the light rail tracks. At this point in time, it would be proper to note that a lot of the trackage in downtown is elevated above ground level thereby eliminating interaction with automobiles. Some of the outer stations are aligned this way too, but not all of them. There are a lot of stretches between stations that run at ground level.
We took a moment to use the restroom inside there. Then, we took a short stroll around downtown and landed on the ground floor of the Wells Fargo tower where a vast food court was located. I had a fantastic veggie burrito at what I think was a local establishment.
After lunch, we went to the 3rd street station to wait on the next outbound train. We waited about 5 minutes on the next train to arrive and when it did, we boarded to head back out to the 485 park & ride. The train was PACKED as we stepped on.
We had to park the stroller my son was in and hold him. I stood and my wife sat with him. This was around 1:30pm and I was pleasantly surprised to see the train so packed. The further we got out towards the 485 station, the more people got off.
When we de-boarded the train, the sun was shining and we were able to return to our car which had not been vandalized or otherwise messed with which was nice to see. Being in an unfamiliar location, one never knows what to expect. We took a ride up the road adjacent to the line, South Blvd. In this area, the road and adjacent properties reminded me of N Keystone Avenue here in Indy from say, 38th to 62nd. Wide, ugly and lots of auto oriented development. It may be this type of environment that has been the hardest to influence by the light rail route.
In hindsight, it would have been nice to spend more time investigating other stations to get a feel for how the TOD has developed around some of the stations. I blogged about the Lynx line last year over at my personal blog based off of web-based research. It would have been nice to be able to walk around the developments, but my vacation was more important and we were over 3 hours from the beach. I was looking forward to unplugging from my day job and the blog at that point so we decided to make our way to the coast. I consider the experience of riding the Lynx to have been a beneficial one if for nothing else, the experience. It was rapid. There were short overheads. The trains were cool and comfortable and the transit advocate in me continues to want to smack the ignorant who say that light rail doesn’t work and we don’t need it.
As a citizen of Indianapolis and a major supporter of mass transit, it should come as no surprise that I am always thinking about how we can pull off a successful light rail system. When I think about the key components that would create the best first step, there are many things to consider. First off, we must define the key characteristics of a transit line that will make it succeed:
- Connects activity centers
- Frequent service
- Be on the Way
I have given a lot of lip service to the benefits of a Broad Ripple to downtown light rail service. Many people when asked where a light rail route would make the most sense in Indy also come up with the same answer. Geographically at it’s core, a Broad Ripple to downtown service would connect activity centers and connect dense neighborhoods that are on the way to employment centers. It is the other three criteria which, if mishandled, would make a route of such proportions a pointless endevour. So it is these three points I intend to examine and bolster in this post.
As I pointed out in my initial summary, a route that connected these two activity centers would provide access for thousands of people to thousands of jobs. If a primary goal of light rail is economic development and environmental justice, a route like this would take thousands of vehicle miles off the road daily while successfully transporting people to their jobs. Thousands of jobs lie within walking distance of a potential route that connects these two activity centers.
Rapid service must be offered so that a reasonable commuting time can be acheived. Why spend the money if the resulting service offers a travel time that is woeful in comparison to taking a car? Knowing that this is a priority can also assist in picking an appropriate travel route. Limiting mixed traffic operations and road crossings where possible will insure that the most rapid service can be offered while still providing as many stops as possible to promote development near stations and reach as many dense population centers as possible. Finding that mix can be the most difficult part of designing a route.
If people are expected to abandon their cars and use transit, then a worthwhile level of service must be offered. Why won’t people wait for 30 to 45 minutes on a bus or train? Getting across Indianapolis in a car can be done in a half hour at a majority of times of the day. Thus, offering a service that arrives every 15 minutes or sooner must be designed. Anything more, will be the inflection point at which people opt to grab the keys when they leave for a trip.
The Proposed Route
Shown at the top of this post is a map that I created for my post, “Why Route Matters” from this past February. In that post, I laid out the basics of why a north/south route through midtown would provide a better return on investment compared to the NE Corridor currently under study by the MPO. Given the constraints that I have laid out above, lets look at the available geography afforded to the north and near north side of Indianapolis. Possible candidates for right of way include existing streets, private property and elevated tracks over existing roadways (ie: Clarian People Mover). In selecting the best route versus cost required to purchase right of way, existing streets offer a fantastic right of way. First, there is minimal need to purchase land from private property owners. Second, if the goal is to supplant cars from these areas, what better a way to do it then putting a train in place? Replacing cars with trains offers what may be the most politically difficult “sell” when it comes to planning a light rail system. However, that debate could be an entire post of it’s own. Furthermore, elevated tracks have become a thing of the past in most modern designs. Elevated tracks create barriers much like freeways do and are also unsightly and expensive.
I will divide my proposed route into multiple portions examining key focus areas. The lower portion will examine the Capitol & Illinois corridors. They provide excellent paths to the downtown job & activity centers. The upper portion will include a short jaunt on 38th street that would lead to College Ave. and ultimately Broad Ripple Ave/62nd Street.
Capitol & Illinois are currently one way streets with 3 or more lanes for autos. Does asking for one lane for LRT upon each of these corridors seems like a good compromise between providing reasonable automobile access as it currently exists and creating an option for rail transit? I believe that they do. Furthermore, a route that utilizes these streets provides virtually front door access to the thousands of medical jobs from 16th street on south; an area poised to grow as an employment center thanks to the construction of the Neuroscience Center at 16th street and future investment via the Biocrossroads innitative.
38th Street Portion
The 38th Street portion would utilize a short jaunt across 38th street between Capitol & College Ave. The least invasive way of doing this is by way of a median running transit route.
One station along this corridor would privide access to a number of apartment complexes as well as shopping centers and other locations in the neighborhood. Again, this is an area with a number of lanes in each direction in an existing wide right of way. Is asking for 1 dedicated lane each direction for this short portion asking a lot?
Perhaps the crown jewel of transit for Indianapolis could be summed up as the College Avenue corridor and Broad Ripple Avenue. Contained along these two corridors are the best preserved legacy of the streetcars of yesterday. At many intersections along College Avenue, from downtown to 62nd street, are existing or relics of past dense retail nodes surrounded by dense housing. Broad Ripple Village is the top node of them all boasting a complete strip of shops still standing up to the street itself. Various apartment developments dot the surrounding area providing a dense retail and residential neighborhood. It is this dense form of yesterday that combines with the automobile culture of today that creates the toughest sitution to shoehorn light rail of some sort back into the mix. College Avenue itself is a 4 lane automobile corridor with parking along both sides for much of it’s length. It is also a busy automobile corridor. A rough dimension to describe it’s width is 55′ between existing street curbs. Finding the right balance of dedicated right of way for transit and automobiles is a huge challenge. So how might we approach this opportunity to excel? One approach is to try shoehorning two dedicated lanes in the median as I proposed for 38th street. This could create some difficult situations for island platforms and could also lead to a reduction in automobile right of way making this a politically dicy proposal. It is the opinion of this author that this idea would not be a bad one. However, I live in the reality that weening people off of cars is going to take some compromise.
College Ave Solution
Taking a page from the Bus Rapid Transit dictionary, comes the notion of mixed operation with traffic with demand lanes at major street crossings. The number of potential stop lights from 38th street to Broad Ripple Avenue are 7 if we include the one at Broad Ripple Avenue. Traffic normally flows reasonably well along this path except at traffic signal crossings. Finding a way to manage rapid transit movement at these intersections could be a key opportunity to mixing trains with autos and still have an opportunity to offer a premium rapid transit service. Another option could be to only operate these demand lanes during peak commuting times giving lane priority to light rail. Locals should be used to what switching traffic patterns look like by travelling on Fall Creek Parkway during peak commuting times. There, the middle lane is changed in the mornings and evenings to give an extra lane to the direction of majority commuters; southbound priority in the morning and northbound priority in the evening.
By doing this, existing automobile traffic lanes could be maintained with a minimal obstruction while still being able to offer a premium transit service. In the end, negotiating something for transit where nothing currently exists, cannot be seen as a large request given the potential benefits.
Broad Ripple Ave Solution
The other difficult portion of a northside rail route is Broad Ripple Ave. In the early days of streetcar usage, Broad Ripple Ave. was the home of a street located rail in both directions where automobiles currently travel. If you have ever visited the Village on a warm summer day or a weekend, then you know that automobile congestion is already a difficult issue. How do we solve this? Part of the problem today is the search for free or cheap parking. Now that the parking meter deal is in place, this should help aleviate congestion. A large majority of all traffic congestion is caused by people circling the block (link to Primer on Parking) looking for available parking. With the new meters in place, turnover should increase and people looking for parking should decrease. If the reported parking garage is to be realized, then congestion for the village could be a problem of the past. However, for the purposes of this case study, I will assume that the existing congestion will remain.
In that respect, I offer the center lane which is currently reserved for turning, to be converted to a 2 way dedicated transit lane. This could be used by trains and by buses travelling through the village. It would only be 1 lane through the most dense portion of Broad Ripple Ave from College Ave, to just east of the Monon where some sort of 2 lane dedicated service could be installed that either uses the median or shifts automobile traffic in some fashion. An alternative to the single center transit lane, can be seen as the dashed line in the graphic. A 2nd lane could be added via this route to facilitate a true 2 way transit path through the village neighborhood. While this could hinder rapid transit through the village, it could also offer access to the side streets of the village with the added benefit of a 2nd dedicated transit lane. It should be noted that any transit lane that traverses the Broad Ripple village is likely to be subject to heated debate as business owners and residents are quite proud of the built environment. Anything that might upset that is likely to be a hotly contested debate. Finally, extending service to the Glendale area could provide what I propose be the only park and ride facility for such a transit route. There are ample surface lots on the property of the old Glendale Mall (now turned Target anchored shopping center) that could be used as park and ride for north side residents wishing to commute downtown for their day jobs.
Have I presented an air tight case for a northside light rail route? No. However, I think I have presented a fair assesement of the geography and some possible solutions to one of the tantalizing rail routes of our region. If done correctly, a rail route through the midtown area could capture thousands of daily vehicle trips, provide economic development potential along old streetcar routes, provide access to jobs and activity centers for thousands of residents as well as conventioners/tourists who visit the downtown area as well as potentially relieve congestion. This case study also highlights a route that could set Indianapolis down a path that could stimulate the rehabilitation of multiple neighborhoods along it’s route which are currently bearing the brunt of disinvestment thanks to suburban sprawl which the recent census has indicated is still on a runaway pace in this region. My analysis also suggests a route that is 100% contained within current automobile right of way; a notion which has not been taken up very often in America. Phoenix, AZ has come the closest with nearly the entire portion of its 20 mile light rail line running along existing auto right of way. This case study is not an airtight one, however it is one that I believe truly offers an ENOURMOUS potential to outperform any commuter rail or BRT route currently drawn on a map by Indyconnect.
Special thanks to fellow Urban Indy writer Graeme Sharpe for some concepts applied in this case study
When does perception become reality? When a preconceived notion trumps all logic and becomes the first thought associated with a specific topic. Why is it then, that “light rail” seems to be the favored quarter when it comes to alternative transportation modes? Last week, I tackled the first half of why we perceive light rail to be superior to commuter rail when I wrote about, “Why Route Matters for Indianapolis”. In that post, I highlighted that it isn’t neccesarily the mode that gets you there, but where a transit route goes that drives ridership gains.
So…. why light rail?
If we base our decision on the facts alone, we can determine that LRT offers advantages. Service frequency, ease of use and closer station spacing all combine to create a propensity to choose LRT over all other modes when given a choice. Additionally, when compared to a bus, statistics have shown that LRT draws more riders than comparable bus service. Furthermore, one of the advertised benefits of LRT over bus, is that it’s static locating of rails in the ground promote incentive for private developers to build near station areas. This type of development (often called Transit Oriented Development or TOD) typically offers a denser living environment due to it’s lessened need for automobile parking. Private development within urban areas is a KEY economic development opportunity and often one of the main political reasons for choosing “light rail” over all other modes of transit. Another perception and a hard one to battle, is that LRT technology is new. The compact nature of LRT operating within urban environments creates the image of an efficient and “fun” mode of transportation to utilize.
Why NOT bus?
The bus’ main competition is the automobile since they both share the same right of way. Given a choice, statistics show that people would rather drive than use a bus. Case in point. IndyGO recently released their 2010 year in review. In the report, they indicated that 116k people rode the IndyGO Express lines last year. To contrast this, I searched the Indianapolis MPO website for their traffic count maps. I zeroed in on the stretch of I-69 that was measured between 82nd street & 96th street; a comparable geographic region for where the IndyGO Express line services. The count? As of 2002, 107k traffic counts. PER DAY. Similar ratios can also be observed by comparing daily IndyGO city bus numbers with daily traffic counts in the urban core. The bottom line is that people are voting with their choice in mode of transportation. Additionally, I cannot cite one development in the Indianapolis region that was chosen because it was located along a bus line. Of course developers will mention the route’s precense, but it is highly unlikely that a route was a primary factor in locating a property development.
Why or why not commuter rail?
Basically, this boils down to level of service. Commuter rail typically provides a quality of service similar to light rail, but a frequency that makes it difficult to utilize. The example set by other cities can provide a picture of what we might expect from commuter rail service in Indianapolis. Portland’s WES (Westside express Service) runs every 30 minutes during rush hour on weekdays. WES provided an average of 1180 daily rides in December of 2010. Minneapolis’ Northstar, according to the website, only offers 6 inbound trips per weekday, 1 of them in the afternoon, and those in the morning are close to every 30 minutes. There is service on the weekends, but it is greatly reduced. Northstar carried 710,400, an average of 1946 per day in 2010, it’s first year of revenue service. Even in Chicago, METRA, which could be considered a service leader in midwest commuter rail service, offers a sporadic level of frequency on it’s electric line (south). Unless planners consider offering better service for the commuter routes in Indianapolis, 30 minute headways could be reasonably expected.
Regarding Private Development
Perhaps the greatest measuring stick, is when a politician can get up in front of a group of his peers, local or foreign, and tout the benefits of living in their city. Regarding transit investment, the first place that comes to my mind is Portland and their streetcar. According to the latest data that I have seen, the downtown Portland area has benefited from $3.5 billion in economic development in the form of condos, retail, etc within 2 blocks of their streetcar route. The leaders in Portland point to the streetcar as the single biggest motivator for rehabilitating an entire district, now called The Pearl. If I could point out a case that clearly makes the case for frequent rail service as an economic driver, this would be it. The development did not result from a bus, nor was it low frequency commuter rail. It was light rail/streetcar type of service that created a perception that there was an opportunity for private business to invest in the community. Obviously, Portland’s civic leaders grabbed onto this opportunity and the ride continues to this day.
Circling back to Indianapolis, one of the key reasons for Indyconnect’s existence, is that it is will give people in the region another tool to create wealth. This can come in the form of equitable travel to employment, activity centers or property development areas around stations. This is not a bad thing if the creation of that wealth generally benefits everyone using it. So what if some developers make some money…. we get a good transit system to use right? At it’s core, providing these opportunities has the chance to increase the quality of life for people who choose to indulge in said opportunities. It is for this reason, why arguing for “light rail” is a valid topic of debate and also why route matters. One last thought to close on this matter. Fellow Urban Indy writer Graeme Sharpe recently put together the above graph, depicting the amount of subsidized lunches that are provided to some area schools. This is one possible barometer of the economy present in those geographic areas. Put plainly, Noblesville HS is closely aligned with the NE Corridor while the other 3 are located along the Washington St corridor.
If we are trying to create economic development options, are we doing so in the right places? You decide….
If I have leaned a little too much on Portland for some of the conclusions, it is for good reason. The recent census figures pegged their growth at 10% over the last 10 years with a glut of that occuring in the inner core. Furthermore, TriMET provided nearly 100 million boardings in 2010 compared to 8.5 million in Indy. For a city that is comparable in a number of way, it is hard not to use their example to frame our story.
Last week, I profiled 22nd Street and how the surrounding neighborhood is poised to benefit from the controversial NE Corridor line in Indianapolis planned in the Indyconnect proposal. This week, I will focus on the neighborhood roughly centered at 71st Street & Binford Blvd; the second area in my series of nodes along the line that fall within the Marion County. The rail line would be the first rail transit of any kind in the Indianapolis area since the interurbans were dismantled. The neighborhoods I am focusing on, have already begun some sort of station area planning as part of a neighborhood revitalization plan, or make good sense to be considered for such.
71st & Binford Blvd
This neighborhood is located on the NE side of Indianapolis just inside the 465 beltway, and centered roughly at the intersection of 71st street, Binford Blvd, and Graham Road. Currently as it exists, the area is awash in car oriented development. A large parking lot fronts a Kroger grocery store. 3 gasoline filling stations/convenience stores dot the area and a number of drive through restaraunts and banks exist. The rail line traverses adjacent and to the west of the area and on the other side is traditional appearing suburban sprawl. Along the east side of the tracks, a number of light industrial facilities exist and appear to be for the most part, occupied. Bordering the east side of the area, is Binford Blvd which is a 4 lane throughway, with a grass median. On the east side of Binford Blvd, are more car oriented drive thru businesses as well as a large strip mall which is also for the most part, occupied. Merely looking at an aerial of the neighborhood, you can see how much pavement there is, and how much land is not being used to it’s full potential.
The good news, is that the neighborhood has realized this. In April of 2010, in co-operation with the Indianapolis MPO, the neighborhood group named Binford Redevelopment & Growth (BRAG), published a master plan for addressing the current form of the neighborhood. Within the document, which is 176 pages long (click here to open in a new window) they outline a long term plan of remediation buoyed by the NE Corridor rail line. The plan’s primary recomendations center on the concepts of land use, transit area design, streetscape design, pedestrian and bicycle connectivity & park and open space allowances. Within the plan, a light framework is proposed upon which to go after these plans, including how to get funding, when to impliment, and what can be done in the meantime while money isn’t available.
One thing that the plan recommends is using a catalyst of some sort to leverage momentum into positive development. The announcement and progress in constructing the NE corridor rail line would go a long way towards giving these plans a bump forward.
Looking back at the plan, the centerpiece would be a transit stop located just south of 71st street. The entire plan revolves around a 1/4 mile distance as the crow flies from the station. Some locations lie just outside this, but not far. All recommended planning would take place directly north, south & east of the station with the suburban form to the west retaining it’s current form. In indutry terms, this would be known as a “transit adjacent development” (TAD). Similar to a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) but due to it’s adjacent geographic location, it cannot influence AS MUCH as a TOD would. The suburban form hinders efforts there. Developers will need to work hard to make the most of the station’s location since it doesn’t travel directly through the center of the neighborhood.
Still though, the plan offers up recommendations that border on a vision that most urbanists can be proud of. Dense form, pedestrians as the dominant form, transit as a supportive land use and connectivity for all those wishing to visit the area. They do not lend a blind eye to the automobile acknowledging that this area was built with the car in mind, and that this shouldn’t be changed for the most part, as Binford Blvd will reamain a through-fare for the foreseeable future.
The last part of the puzzle recommends a pedestrian bridge over Binford Blvd located near 71st street. The current streetscape makes it a very risky task to cross Binford Blvd, and the neighborhood recommendation would be a structure that creates a gateway for motorists, and provides a safe crossing for pedestrians that creates a sense of place, and of safety in using it.
This document represents a fairly robust station area plan that developers of the rail line can use when it comes to positioning a station in this area. Early indications point to this as a likely place for a stop along the commuter rail’s route from Noblesvile to Union Station. A lot of investment will be needed if this plan is ever to come to full recommendation, but it represents a positive vision for the long term success of the neighborhood. A lot of parking appears to have been retained, but the key point to make in regards to that, is that it appears as if the planners looked at a shared system of parking where adjacent businesses share parking, a key component in cutting development costs, and traffic congestion. If the rail line were to be shelved for some reason, there still seems to be enough energy in this area to create peedestrian oriented development. A sidewalk has already been constructed at 62nd street almost all the way to Binford Blvd, and on the neighborhood’s website, a current innitiative of theirs is to build a robust system of sidewalks. ALL urbanists can be proud of at least that. The rail line however, could be the key piece of the puzzle in attracting a robust growth in pedestrian activity and the creation of a village atmosphere that people all over Indianapolis will want to visit.
Recently, the Indianapolis MPO released a report (click to open 33 page .pdf) created to examine the spaghetti bowl of freight train traffic that comes and goes in the Indianapolis region. While this wasn’t a point of major debate through out the Indyconnect meeting periods, it bares a lot of responsibility when it comes to firming up the underbelly of passenger rail connections in the Indyconnect plan. On my personal blog, I touched on this months ago and cited a report created in 2004 that explored moving freight traffic to the old belt railway that circles the DT area. In that post, I asked the question about how commuter trains would efficiently use Union Station as the region’s passenger hub, and maintain freight traffic without conflicts. Apparently someone at the MPO has already been thinking about this….
The new report, released in September of 2010, pre-dates the latest Indyconnect release and paints a picture of what could be in the region’s very long term transportation future. Multiple commuter rail and light rail lines are painted on the map as a means of quantitatively crafting a plan that would divert freight trains off of lines through downtown Indianapolis, and onto the belt railway. Currently, freight traffic dominates the regions railways. According to the executive summary:
- “Businesses in the Indianapolis MPO area originated and/or terminated over 100,000 carloads containing 7 million tons of freight in 2005″
- ”Passenger service is provided by Amtrak with two trains, the Cardinal and Hoosier State, which combined provide service between Chicago and New York City. Amtrak trains arrive at and depart from Union Station”
The executive summary makes the following conclusion:
- From an operating standpoint, separation of freight and passenger trains would provide the best approach
to resolve or mitigate issues associated with freight and passenger trains operating on the same track.
Relocating freight trains to the Belt, a rail line that provides a circular route around most of Indianapolis
was investigated previously, principally for safety reasons, but is now being reconsidered to
accommodate passenger train access to the center city. This alternative appears to represent the most
comprehensive approach when considering all potential intercity and commuter passenger services. But,
even it is not without problems
Complicating matters seem to be the Citizens Gas plant located downtown which is fed a steady diet of coal, and also the GM plant on the west side of the White River, both of which actively depend on the freight lines. In addition to the bulk of freight already present, future commuter lines originating from Shelbyville and Mooresville cloud the picture; as does the ever present specter of high speed rail. In solving this, the MPO and it’s partner, Wilber Smith Associates, recommend some sort of action if passenger traffic is to be accommodated using Union Station. What this is, remains to be seen however as a concrete plan is not laid out in the study. Multiple recommendations are given in respect to the currently proposed commuter lines which appear to be somewhat safe. If future commuter traffic from the other suburbs, as well as touched on lines from Muncie and Bloomington, are to be accommodated, further study will need to be put in place to figure out how to keep passenger rail and freight rail separated.
In this study, I see a vision for a larger passenger rail plan for Indianapolis. I’m not sure that I agree with so many commuter trains coming and going, but I do appreciate the vision of light rail to the Broad Ripple area, as well as south towards the University of Indianapolis. While none of this was talked about specifically in the current Indyconnect plan, it paints a picture of what planners thought about when considering the current plan. I have it from higher authority, that the long range plan’s budget accommodates some sort of belt renewal. However, no other details were given and this planning document from the MPO represents the only official piece I can find. This document could help paint the picture of what the next long range plan could look like; or the current one, should funding or public sentiment push more light rail interests forward. To review the report, click this link to open the .pdf in a new window.
The Clarian People Mover in Indianapolis is a privately owned and operated elevated fixed guideway transit structure. It closely resembles a “monorail” but in fact is not. It was built with the purpose of connecting medical facilities in downtown Indianapolis’ NW medical district. It connects Methodist hospital on it’s north station, with the IU Medical complex on it’s south end, and by extension, IUPUI; if you are willing to walk a few hallways and take an elevator to get there. There is one stop midway through it’s route to serve another medical related facility. The service is also free of charge to anyone from the public who wishes to ride. For these purposes, it does a great job.
However, what it does NOT do, is function as a proper modern mode of transportation. While it is a fare free service, it really doesn’t serve anything else besides the medical facilities efficiently. The rail passes by numerous apartment developments and commercial developments. It stands to reason that given access to the People Mover, efficient non-automobile related transportation of people could thrive. However, getting on the people mover presents a challenge. All the stations are buried within facilities that you must really make an honest effort to reach. Once there, the facilities provided are very clean, and function nicely. In most places where a public rail system is built, private development follows it. It is this function that largely fails the Clarian People Mover. You can make a strong case that Clarian has planned it’s facilities around the People Mover and to that affect, it has spurred SOME development, but how much has the People Mover really done to promote this? Additionally, it hasn’t cut down on any parking lots, nor spurred any sort of talk about modifying zoning standards to make accommodating the people mover a motivating factor in development. It also has zero interface with the city’s transit agency, IndyGO.
Recently, property development around the 10th street and Indiana Ave area has begun on its own. A large development called, “The Avenue” will take the place of the former Fall Creek YMCA. Also, across Fall Creek, 1201 Indiana Ave, a medium density apartment complex, is being constructed. Both show that there is interest in this area as far as residential interests are concerned. The current Wishard Hospital also resides at this intersection and will become vacant a few years from now. It is unknown at this point what sort of development will grow up on the former site of this medical facility but if current trends are any indication, it will be another medical facility of some sort that could benefit from a connection to the People Mover. Also of note are prospective plans for the former Lockefield Village to convert it to student housing. A feasibility study is underway to determine if this is a good reuse. Additionally, the Van Rooy owned Campus Apartments just east of The Avenue are slated for redevelopment at some point in the not too distant future.
The case being laid out, could the Clarian People Mover be modified to interface this rapidly improving node? Could a new station located in the 10th & Indiana area usher in more private development? There are a number of smaller low density commercial nodes in this area that could also be redeveloped in a manner that complimented an oft served transportation mode such as the people mover. A mixed use transit oriented type of development seems logical. It’s fair to assume that could a compromise with Clarian (or IU Health as it’s slated to be renamed to after the new year) be struck, a more dense area that served the residents of the area and promoted a less auto dependent mode of transportation could be developed.
This is merely one transit advocate’s idea of how the area could be improved with some small changes by a corporation that has already demonstrated it is capable of providing a nice transportation service and a city badly in need of alternatives to the automobile. For years, transit advocates have bemoaned the missed opportunity that the People Mover represents. It essentially turns it’s back to the neighborhood. Perhaps it could be modified to make it a little more accommodating and in the process, provide a great service to the neighborhood and city both. Selling Clarian on the idea is obviously the largest hurdle, but a medical agency that promotes good health practices, could be the biggest advocate of a mode of transportation that promotes walking and other health benefits associated with alternative modes of transportation.
As always, Im open to thoughts regarding this off the wall idea.
In February of 2010, the city of Indianapolis made an exciting announcement. Mayor Greg Ballard announced that a task force had been formed a year and a half prior to study the long term future of transportation in the Indianapolis area. They coined this marketing blitz, Indyconnect. This wasn’t simply public transportation, this was public transportation, automobile transit, pedestrian and bicycle access as well as issues regarding freight travel on rail and freeway. What followed, was a series of public meetings that engaged the public on the initial plan and asked for input on what the final plan should be.
A long winded analysis of the plan could be undertaken at this point. To save space, and your attention, I will take this opportunity to examine why rail is a reasonable goal for Indianapolis and why the NE Corridor is a poor choice for the first line to be constructed.
Detractors of rail based infrastructure developments will argue first that rail is expensive and that Indianapolis is not dense enough for it. They would also be correct. Rail IS expensive. And Indianapolis when examined at the county level probably isn’t dense enough. Cities across the nation have shown that if not handled responsibly and in a timely manner, construction and implimentation of the operating services can get out of hand which lead to delays and added expense. See: Austin, TX or Norfolk, VA.
All cons being said, there are pockets of Indianapolis that are perfectly suited for rail transit. It is commonly accepted that while rail upgrades do not always (and in most cases don’t) solve automobile congestion problems, what they do, is give options to those who wish to live without a car, or who cannot afford one. Indianapolis is a HUGELY auto dependent city. In the long term, it can be argued that providing choices for people that do not increase our dependance on foreign oil is prudent. It can also be argued that for long term environmental health, that auto-centric thinking should probably be scaled back to reduce greenhouse gases.
There are also a host of other justifications that rail supporters will give from improving health to the expense of automobile based development (ie: parking lots, low density strip malls, suburban sprawl, etc). I could go on for thousands of words citing studies that tell of the large expense of parking lots. The large expense of building and maintaining roadways that serve low density suburban populations, etc…
Analysis of routes
The NE Corridor however, represents an initial step in the wrong direction. To take a que from the Overhead Wire regarding Austin, TX, “What are they thinking??” From a purely political and logical point of view, it initially makes sense to give in and agree that the NE Corridor study area has been beaten to death. People sort of accept that it will go there, and politicians won’t fight this without pressure. There is currently an Environmental Impact Study being undertaken (EIS) that will determine the feasibility of this route, and it’s associated impacts. The expense involved in running rail for 15-25 miles (depending on the end points) will be HUGE. Examining the social point of view, the people living in the burbs have shown by voting (quite literally) with their wallet, that they LIKE buying cars.
The line if built as planned, will travel where CSX freight trains travel in the DT area. Then, it would travel through vacated neighborhoods like Martindale that are starting to see a resurgence of growth thanks to federal intervention. They will travel through SOME dense areas north of here and just when it begins to reach the southern Broad Ripple sphere of influence, the task force has agreed that all day service should stop about 10 blocks south at 38th street.
Conversely, if planners decided that the Washington Street light rail were to be constructed first, immediate impact could be realized. First, the agreed upon route travels through the densest areas that the Indianapolis region has to offer, perfect for rail transit’s target demographic. Even IndyGO rider numbers justify this claim based upon numbers from their #10 route (Washington Street). Additionally and behind closed doors, higher up public figures involved with Indyconnect have agreed that private developers are more interested in the economic development opportunities along both the east and west side proposed Washington Street Light Rail line. Public sentiment also matches the will to extend light rail to the airport.
If planners decided that the Washington Street line offered more merits compared to the NE Corridor and chose to construct that alignment first, the completion of the NE Corridor EIS would not neccesarily mean that construction would need to immediately begin. When the EIS is finished and published, a Record of Decision (ROD) will be written. When this is decreed, it is lasting. There is no shelf life on an ROD.
There are likely to be many battles fought over this issue when the cards are on the table. I know personally, that there are already advocacy groups going against the NE Corridor as the first rail line to be constructed. From an enthusiasts point of view, rail offers some great, and lasting, economic development opportunities as well as long term economic vitality as an attractive amenity. It is seen as progressive and it departs from a long history of automobile centered policy decisions.
Editor’s note: Citizens can debate the merits of how far any of these lines should go and back it up with plenty of data as well. My hope is to keep this discussion to one alignment versus another for now.