September 26th 2008 represented an important and exciting milestone for mass transit advocates in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. That day, the Indianapolis Regional Transportation Council voted unanimously in favor of an Indiananapolis MPO proposal to use diesel engines on a 19-mile rail line from Noblesville to Downtown Indianapolis for the region's first of seven proposed rapid transit lines. This was a "get over the hump moment" in that the location has been identified, the right of way is simple in that its not an existing freight line, and the region is badly in need of all kinds of mass transit improvements.
With gasoline prices out of control at the time, it was likely a large motivator in the unanimous approval of the line. The next step in the process after that, is getting a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (see here for a proper definition). To the best of my sleuthing ability, this was not started until September of 2009 when funding was finally provided to HNTB Corp, an entity with great experience with DEIS. The study lasts 12-18 months and comes at a cost of approximately $2 million but when complete will represent a very firm engineering recomendation of what it will take to make this thing spring off the paper, and onto the ground.
What I aim to offer you, is a poor man's DEIS. An observation of what is on the ground now, and what will need to be overcome from a labor standpoint, to make it come to life. This is the first part, and focuses soley, on the largely rundown Union Station in downtown Indianapolis. This is the defacto hub of the transit system being planned. And while it logically makes sense, getting that idea to reality will provide quite a challenge.
I drug my wife out on a cold and gray afternoon in November to try and observe Union Station in its current state. We took photos from the top of the Union Station Parking Garage, an 8 story parking structure located just east of the station along Meridian Street. It was a great vantage point for seeing the big picture. The structure from the outside, and the lines that enter and exit. I have provided a map with this post, cut and pasted from google maps, showing an aerial view of the area. I can attest that it has not changed much, when I was there in person.
The building itself has been around for years. I won't bore you with more words about the history of the building and how Indianapolis managed to become a regional rail hub in the 19th and early 20th century.
The constructoin of a viaduct across the east side of downtown and a large part of the east side of the metro area, is in this case, a FANTASTIC advantage and something that transit advocates can consider money spotted to them. The question of getting trains into and out of downtown is solved. The right of way exists above street level. A "redneck observation" of the aerial view shows that there are 4 tracks running into the station at this point. One can surmise that at one point there were a great deal many. The size of Union Station shows that there were likely many more lines running in. Even when on the ground, the 2 north most lines that run into the shed, are platform 9 and 10. They represent lines that are currently used for the once daily Amtrak train that pulls in at 6am headed for Chicago. The other 2, are owned by CSX and are used daily to transport freight across our nation. In my opinion, track 9 and 10 represent the best chance for offloading passengers when they get downtown. Once there, plenty of platform space await them as they exit the passenger cars.
The next problem is actually getting them from the platform, to their final destination whether it be work, entertainment, a colts game... whatever. This represents a much larger problem to tackle. What once was a bustling platform, has been closed down for all intents and purposes. I observed multiple old stairsways that likely went to ground level that are now filled with concrete. The handrails are still there, with the classic stylings showing their age. The sad part is that though this is an active platform, you would never tell it to look at it. There is garbage strewn about. Its dark. Lighting is poor. The sunlights above are very opaque in appearance and do not let in sufficient light. I spent a half hour up there walking and snapping photos and felt like a ghost could have floated up and tapped me on the shoulder.
On the west side of the station, platform 9 and 10's tracks exit and meet up with the CSX lines. However, due to the reconstruction of the Indianapolis Convention Center, the track is broken and new rebar is being laid down. I suspect the passage under the tracks from the convention center to Lucas Oil Stadium has something to do with this. Once that is complete, I suspect the rails will be reconnected. Hopefully at least.
I havent seen much on the topic, but in some of the other proposals before the final approval of the commuter line's path was decided much was made about getting passengers out. IUPUI utilizes the IndyGO Red Line to get circulate people on and off of campus. The planners have something similar planned for this to get people from Union Station around downtown to the various office buildings and what not. This will likely be in the form of a bus. One can dream about a ground level street car system but with the funding options, something like that is far, far off. All we can hope for now, are buses. This works somewhat though in the fact that Greyhound already operates out of the same place that Amtrak does.
The one stairway down from Platform 9 and 10, opens into the Greyhound bus waiting area. A largely cold looking area with some old wooden benches, and lots of heavy steel beams supporting the platforms above. It opens to the south side of the tracks, so that one sees Lucas Oil Stadium when they exit the area. From there, by foot, one would have to walk the block under the viaduct to get towards downtown. My friends, even during the day this is a somewhat shady looking walk. More steel beams, dank yellow lighting, and spatterings of chain link fence mark this area. I'm not one for telling people what to do but from a salesman point of view when you are trying to attract the people from their neatly landscaped subdivisions to downtown, the last thing they want to be greeted by is the scene which I just described. Perhaps some cleaning of this area, better (read: whiter (not yellow) lighting would help) as well as some more pedestrian friendly affects to make a walk from there a bit more easy to stomach.
The IBJ recently reported that Citizens Gas presented a black grant fo $50,000 to the SustainIndy fund to be used for the construction of a "green roof" at union station. I sent an email to SustainIndy inquiring about any information that is available but got a quick canned reply thanking me for the email. I suspect it will be a bit, before I get a reply; IF I get a reply which I am not optimistic about.
In conclusion, a remarkable amount of time and effort will need to be spent to get this place into shape. Not only to be able to handle heavy foot traffic in and out of, but making it a place that people WANT to use. I believe that making the place visually appealing will be a major step in gaining support for rail transit period in this region. Stay tuned for the next 3 parts of my series Making the Case for Indianapolis Commuter Rail!
Part 3: Examining the stops