Another year, another round of budget shortfalls. The same old story for IndyGo, Indianapolis’ municipal transit provider. For the 2012 fiscal year, the short fall is expected to be $6.4 million short. At the core of the issue is existing funding sources drying up vs rising costs to do business mostly in the form of employee health care and gasoline expenses. Indeed, IndyGo has to fight for the same reasons that the Indianapolis Library system does. The recently passed property tax caps have put all taxpayer funded programs in a pinch this year. So, what do we do? According to a story in the Indianapolis Star, the IndyGo board decided to put the questions again to the Indianapolis City Council. Last night, the IndyGo board voted to adopt the 2012 budget and according to IndyGo President Mike Terry, “The IndyGo board adopted the balanced budget for 2012 which incorporated an excess property tax levy of $.023/100 assessed valuation which will net $6.4M necessary to fund the revenue and expense gap. The board’s decision was supportive of the public’s desire to not increase fares or reduce service for fixed route or para transit. The next step involves review by the city council via the municipal corporations committee. The council can approve the budget as presented, deny and leave us to operate within the 2011 revenue limits (service reductions/fare increases), or amend with revenue combinations and/or expense reductions.”
Perhaps one of the more interesting scenarios could come in the form of a denial from the council on the budget. If that were to happen, a multitude of cuts could come from reduced service, to higher fares, etc. With the coming Indiana session will come a renewed effort to create a local funding option for dedicated transit funding. Our local transit partners IndyGo, CIRTA & the MPO under the umbrella of Indyconnect will make another strong push to our state legislators to allow us to have a referendum to more fully fund transit. Could a reduction in service or rise in boarding fares create a favorable condition for legislators to vote YES on such a bill? That could be a key question facing our local transit leaders. St. Louis experienced a similar situation a couple years ago where a major cut in transit service resulted in a successful referendum campaign to raise taxes; that lead to a restoration of bus service as well as funding for new light rail lines.
Kevin covered what the potential cuts in service COULD look like a few weeks ago when he examined the 2010 IndyGo Comprehensive Operational Analysis. That document assessed the state of IndyGo’s system and how cuts to funding (or conversely new funding) could affect the system’s design and operation. While that plan serves as a good foundation to ask what if?, the reality is that it could be a difficult political sell to make these changes.
It remains to be seen what will actually happen if IndyGo is denied any help to their 2012 operating budget.
In full disclosure, I should note that Urban Indy was one of the first organizations to adopt a measure supporting dedicated transit funding.
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.
As I have posted about before, the Indianapolis MPO is in charge of transportation planning in our region. Their governing region extends into other counties around the region. A federally mandated charge of theirs, is to keep a long range plan on hand that fiscally constrains our region’s transportation expansion over a 20 to 25 year period. Everything from highway and street planning to transit planning is included. It is updated every few years formally, and informally here and there. Until recently, there was no transit, at least in large part, included in the plan. That all changed when Indyconnect broke on the scene. Today, the MPO released 3 volumes of draft documents on their website pertaining to the 2035 long range plan. As a transit activist, the most interesting document, was the 3rd Volume named, Transit Vision Plan. You can open the document by clicking here. Its 40 pages long.
Contained between the covers of this document, are some interesting pieces of information. The document lays out a vision of transit expansion that encompasses a realistic set of projects that could be included within the current 25 year long range plan. The first few chapters capture this in detailed form painting a picture of bus, light rail and streetcar expansion. There is a rating system attached that assigns a value to each potential project and labels it by name. The most surprising appearance, is a system of circulator type routes in the downtown area that are labeled as bus routes that could potentially be switched over to light rail or streetcar technology after the current 25 year plan’s recommendations are implemented. That is where reality sets in, and the most favorable projects are presented; which closely matches the plan announced in November 2010 by Indyconnect, and in which Urban Indy offered some critical analysis of.
However, the document does provide some hope to local transit advocates that our planning body received the message loud and clear when it came to urban transit improvements. There are renderings included which show streetcar service along Mass Ave in downtown Indianapolis. The highest ranking project on the list of aforementioned projects, is a circulator from lower downtown to IUPUI which would likely be implemented as a bus route and could someday be switched to a streetcar mode of transportation.
There is also significant language included which talks about remediation of Union Station downtown prior to the opening of the first commuter line. The consultants estimated $100 million would be required to fully service Union Station. As I have pointed out REPEATEDLY, there is a need to make this a modern facility that encourages people to want to visit. It makes me smile to know some thought was given to this. There is also space devoted to the remediation of the Belt Railway after the opening of the second commuter rail line; a topic that was touched upon here at Urban Indy recently as well.
Also of note is the downtown transit center that has been much talked about and studied since 2006. In this vision, the planners see a transit center located where the post office facility is located on South Street directly across from Union Station. It would handle 20 buses and facilitate transfer between routes and modes of transportation. There is also a vision of transit spines running north & south on both sides of downtown. One corridor would encompass Capitol & Illinois while the other would use Pennsylvania and Delaware as it’s spine. From each, a branching network of buses would serve the downtown area.
One of the most significant and yet not as visible pieces of the puzzle is touched upon quite often as well, and that is transit supportive land use zoning. Each project would have a check mark of items before coming online of which supportive land use patterns is a part of. This is something we have talked much about at Urban Indy, and which is at the crux of all dense land development.
The picture painted in the plan is quite rosy once totally implemented. While we sit and wait on the state legislature to decide if we should be “allowed” to vote on a tax increase, all of these ideas shall sit and wait. Without any sort of funding, they remain merely a vision and cannot be included in the official adopted long range plan. Without funding, these transit improvements can only be talked about.
I will end this with one last thought. If you study the map I have included, you will notice that N/S light rail has been added to the map travelling through Broad Ripple, south along the Illinois/Capitol corridor and to Indianapolis University. This is a logical path for transit in the region which should arguably be included in the near term plan, but is also an expensive project. The last piece to take with us, is that these plans are always under revision, and should public and political sentiment change, or other funding sources be found or created, more capital intensive projects such as light rail could take shape within the current adopted plan. To review the Transit Vision Plan draft version and read the details even more in depth than I have provided, click here.
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.
Last night I had the opportunity to finally attend one of the Indyconnect Round 2 meetings. It was a little different from the Round 1 meetings, in that it was more of a community meeting where one could sign up to stand and comment or ask questions. I was near the end of the roughly dozen people who stood up and commented or asked questions. There were many interesting questions, but the overwhelming theme was: “What happened to light rail on Washington Street?” The answer that officials on hand gave was that it was purely a financial decision. The support is obviously there, but the budget cannot support it.
I made a couple of pointed inquiries at the meeting and also this morning, regarding the Washington Street BRT plan. My initial question revolved around how Indianapolis could successfully transition an existing BRT line into a light rail corridor and keep the share of riders that it had built up. Ottawa, Canada is struggling with this issue right now. Years ago they developed a robust BRT system and at this point, it’s downtown sections are so congested with bus traffic, to construct a LRT guideway would literally snuff the existing bus riders. A similar condition could also hamper efforts to convert Washington Street BRT to LRT years in our future given that LRT is planned for an alignment along the median of Washington Street to replace what would have been a perceived transit-way for buses.
However, when I dug into the matter I discovered details not readily apparent in recent Indyconnect release literature. What planners were tasked with falls significantly short of the general expectation for BRT, something I examined in my post last week . What we can expect out of a Washington Street BRT is similar to Kansas City’s MAX system. I did a little digging and found a nice post from Metro Jacksonville (sort of the Urban Indy of Jacksonville, FL). They did some investigating of the KC MAX line and have a nice report online if you want to read about it.
In case you don’t want to check it out, the overriding opinion is clear: Kansas City’s MAX system is NOT a real BRT system and it’s lack of infrastructure investment has not spurred ANY DEVELOPMENT WHATSOEVER along it’s 6 mile route. Ridership has risen 50% along the route which in itself is commendable, but in terms of attracting economic investment, there has not been anything substantial to speak of.
Essentially, what we are getting is a dressed up bus to run within the constraints that exist today. There will be some traffic signal priority given, with fewer stops so that true express bus service is offered. That is commendable and will provide significant mobility to those choosing to ride. However, that word, “choose” is the crux of this article. Will people choose to ride this bus? No one can say and it is this fact coupled with the lack of infrastructure investment coming with it, that will hinder potential economic investment along Washington Street, as well as other BRT routes being considered in this plan.
Local developers do not expect this to catalyze much development. The lack of heavy investment in infrastructure does not represent enough certainty when it comes to raising money to invest in new projects along these routes. Additionally, the time until LRT would be implimented hinders any sort of developing plans for this in the short term.
Essentially, Indyconnect planners traded out Washington Street light rail for even longer commuter rail routes representing limited investment in transit along the city’s most heavily trafficked local bus line. Why have our planners taken a known and existing line and scoffed at it, in exchange for a rail service which will offer less return on investment due to the potential for low ridership along commuter lines? Simply put, it’s much cheaper to rebuild old existing freight rail lines than it is to invest in new technology along Washington Street. Potential development along the Nickel Plate line is apparent inside of Marion County. No one can argue that. However, this is something that will need to be developed, and commuter rail service typically does not offer the frequency with which to stimulate optimum investment along its corridor.
I struggle to advocate in this manner right now. Mostly, because I find it commendable that our leaders realize the need to grow bus ridership. I also follow other planning blogs that say, “Don’t quibble over the mode, only the route!” However, light rail investment attracts a higher ROI compared to bus, or commuter rail. Investment means new jobs and dense development patterns. In a city sorely lacking any sort of efficient transit oriented development, light rail on Washington Street would be a virtual overnight success. If the extensions of the NE and S commuter lines were returned to their prior planned termini and a plan hatched for Washington St LRT in the final approved version, investment would already be in the conversation; something that Mayor Ballard touted when the original plan was announced last February. An alternative could offer a compromise if TRUE BRT were to be constructed with a dedicated and seperated ROW and robust stations that provided the appearance of long term stability to citizens of Marion County. Much like what I showed from Cleveland in last week’s BRT post.
Peer cities would recognize our leap of faith in embracing either of the new technologies and would position us along with other cities we are commonly grouped with economically, most of which have robust transit systems with an expanding rail (or true BRT) component. I urge Indyconnect and the associated personal to rethink this oversight, and take a chance on something considered progressive and an almost guaranteed success.
Kansas City MAX photos from Metro Jacksonville
Since the unveiling of Indyconnect’s long term proposal on Monday November 8th, those of us who were advocating AND EXPECTING light rail transit, are left to pick up the pieces. What we had been hoping for was light rail transit that would be implimented along Washington Street. Traditionally, light rail has been a GREAT motivator of economic investment in communities along it’s route. This fact, and this fact alone, was what most people were hoping for with Indyconnect’s intial plan of LRT along this route.
However, this was not to be. Due to the current economic climate, coupled with an anticipated pushback from fiscal conservatives across the region, planners opted for BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) in it’s place. From a shear mobility standpoint, BRT WILL address the needs of people wishing to travel from place to place using this service. It could arrive every 10 to 15 minutes using a dedicated transitway located in the median of Washington Street. It is unknown at this point when this particular system could be constructed. BRT systems that have been introduced in other cities have usually cost orders of magnitude cheaper due to the lower amount of infrastructure needed to impliment their service.
However, what BRT gains in price savings, it gives up in the form of what it is: A bus. No matter how you dress it up, it is a bus. BRT usually comes with improved stations that resemble light rail stops with raised curbs, fancy covered stops and some sort of public art to accenuate the areas and try to create “place” for people waiting on the bus. However, perception of buses is likely the sole contributor to the lower amount of investment that crops up around these routes. Rail, due to it’s static nature, tends to give potential developers peace of mind in knowing that the train is always going to be there now, and in the future.
With these facts in hand, what can we look forward to from a Washington Street BRT line? A quick examination shows that BRT has been operating in several major cities in America for some years now. Boston has the Silver Line. Cleveland has the Healthline and Everett, WA has the Swift BRT line. All 3 use varying types of infrastructure dedicated to insuring the buses get priority through dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority. They all operate special types of buses that differentiate them from the typical low boarding bus that we are used to here in Indianapolis.
Provided that the region can get this plan onto a referendum and voters approve it, future modifications of the Washington Street BRT line convert it to a full light rail system. However, this would not happen until 2030 some reports say. Can we hope that development will put this in it’s pocket and go ahead with development along Washington Street’s BRT line in anticipation of full conversion to LRT? One can only speculate at this point.
The other BRT routes suggested in the plan seem to point to a version of BRT that is not quite as infrastructure dependent as the Washington Street line. The 3 other routes specified, would likely rely upon signal prioritization and perhaps some bus only lanes at key intersections that allow buses to bypass traffic. However, we will have to wait and see what planners have in store for those routes. Whatever the case, BRT ultimately represents a compromise in technology for the benefit of fiscal conservatives, and the detriment of potentially better economic investment along it’s route.
In what could be considered some of the most positive Indianapolis related transportation news, today IndyGO released some news that they will be purchasing 22 new buses; and 11 of them will be of the hybrid variety.
“In January, IndyGo plans to welcome 22 new 40-foot, low-floor buses into its fleet. Of those 22 buses, 11 will incorporate the latest electric hybrid technology, resulting in fuel savings, reduced emissions and smoother, quieter rides.”
“Each IndyGo hybrid bus combines a diesel-fueled combustion engine, made by Columbus, Ind.-based Cummins, with a battery-powered electric motor, allowing it to deliver better fuel economy as well as generate 99.84 percent fewer emissions than a conventional bus. A Hoosier-built Allison transmission sends the power from the engine to the drive wheels.”
Kudos to IndyGO for putting it’s tight budget expeditures in the right place!