Justifying Rail transit for Indy & where it should start

NE Corridor vs Washington Street
NE Corridor vs Washington Street

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.

San Diego Light Rail (pic via flickr user Richards Albums)
San Diego Light Rail (pic via flickr user Richards Albums)

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…

Indianapolis Population Density
Indianapolis Population Density

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.

IndyGO Bus on westside of DT
IndyGO Bus on westside of DT

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.

Comments 21

  • This might be even more pertinent given that Indy just repealed the taxi licenses for 7 pretty major taxi companies in Indy.

    Granted, I’m sure those companies will be back in business by the time a rail line is complete, but maybe it’ll at least keep those taxi companies occupied instead of lobbying against the rail extending to the airport (see also: Miami).

  • Great post, but just a note of clarification: the Washington Street bus is #8, not #10. #10 is the 10th Street bus, which is also one of the higher-capacity lines in the city, as it services the hospital complex of the VA, Riley Childrens, and IU Hospitals. #10 also runs through Haughville — another one of the higher-density areas in the county — and forms the northern border of the very dense East Washington Corridor.

  • Thanks for the great article and analysis. There is no doubt that from a planning perspective, the Washington Street light rail line should be priority #1. The population density map posted above is all the evidence needed to justify prioritizing this route. With serving the high density pockets of the region comes higher ridership, potential TOD, and thus a greater chance of project success. With success comes the greater chance of other rail projects being implemented. Thus, we need to start building rail where there is the greatest chance of success, not where political prudence dictates.

  • Indeed a great post. I am an attorney with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission and a casual “urbanophile.” When I read this post I couldn’t help but consider the age-old urban tendency to serve the more fortunate (ie. white) at the expense/loss of the poor (ie. minority). The competing rail alignments are a very good case in point. Lay the density map over a census demographic map. For more information on the historical link between transportation and civil rights see http://www.prrac.org/newsletters/julaug2010.pdf.

  • The Washington St. line wouldn’t need to go east of Shadeland until numbers justified it. There are also plenty of places that could serve as dual parking lots from old strip malls – even if they were relined with buildings!

  • Add to the #8 bus ridership the #3 bus (NY-Michigan route) which runs east-west through the heart of the densest Eastside neighborhoods and it’s a slam-dunk case for the Washington Street line. (Disclosure: I live less than a mile from Washington Street on the Eastside. I’m definitely pursuing self-interest here.)

    Curt, I know the topic was IndyConnect, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention your own previous idea of a Broad Ripple/Glendale-to-Downtown streetcar line. Again, it would serve existing and emerging dense neighborhoods (and people of all colors) who are already committed to city living. Surely justification could be found in looking at ridership of the core IndyGo routes (#17, #18, #19, #28, #38, #39) routes that run up the Northside spine between Capitol and College. Converting to frequent streetcar service in those areas would allow for more crosstown bus routes to connect to the spine.

  • I am certainley 100% behind a downtown to Broad Ripple via College Ave streetcar alignment. In the interest of keeping all of your guy’s attention though, I thought I would save that for another write up. The social implications of advocating for the proximity of a College Ave streetcar line and the NE Corridor commuter line are tough for me to come up with a list of reasons right off the bat. I live in SoBro so the self interest is there for me as well. I just know that southsiders are going to feel jilted if I keep writing about all these northside alignments. 😉

    But yes, I agree. Connecting the two winningest neighborhoods in Indy should be a priority as well.

  • I’d say it this way: let the Marion County share of transit tax pay for the lines that entirely serve Marion County, north-south and east-west streetcar lines. There’s no reason a north-south line couldn’t run south of Washington to serve LOS, Conseco, Lilly’s corporate center and the Fountain Square and/or Garfield Park areas via Madison and then East or Shelby; the reason for a north-south line is more about “destination density” and tying into east-west buslines anyway. That, and the fact that “city people” are far more likely to ride convenient transit than suburbanites.

    Let the Hamilton County share of the transit tax, and whatever state money they can beg, borrow or steal, fund the commuter rail and the bus improvements there.

  • The NE corridor makes the most sense from a long-term commuter perspective, with Hamilton County’s park and ride potential. West Washington Street is not dense enough to justify a full east-west route IMO. I think it would be great to have 2 lines with a junction downtown, one along East Washington extending to Irvington and the other along the northeast corridor to the suburbs.

    • Brian: what’s south of West Washington and west of I-465? A critical piece of transit infrastructure, and a vital system destination. The east-west line simply must extend to the airport; in fact, I’d build that piece first.

  • Playing devil’s advocate here for a minute, when Sacramento planned and built their initial line, they created a route that would be similar to blending the NE Corridor and Washington Street line together. It was a long route, with portions of it being single tracked and over time, they have piece by piece expanded it to be two seperate lines both double tracked. I have tried to apply the same thinking to Indy and wonder if the FTA would even allow the two alignments to be built under one project. Complicating it even more, is the technology tha could be used. Whether or not DMU’s are still slotted for the NE Corridor and what type of technology would be selected for Washington Street (im guessing electrified Light Rail Vehicles… or perhaps streetcar technology, but that is hedging on an entire different topic all together)

    The point is, there are plenty of ways to attack it but the will has to exist to do it that way, and it would represent quite a skew in thinking compared to conventional regional wisdom

  • The King Park and Martindale-Brightwood communities near the Monon Trail from 16th to 38th Streets have been showing resurgence. What today looks like an under-utilized corridor will change dramatically in the next 5-10 years. It’s a continuation of the Fall Creek place revitalization coupled with the positive influence of the Monon Trail. Because of the noise they produce, the more cost effective DMUs may not be welcomed by any neighborhood in the city core or suburbs. The NE corridor or other possible lines must be installed with care or they will negatively impact property values and reverse hard fought gains to rebuild what was the blighted north-east side of downtown Indianapolis.

  • Honestly, if the planners just don’t have the will to go out and make Washington Street Light Rail the priority, then there should be some kind of way to make the NE Corridor good for those of us in the urban core. If that means that the all day frequent portion of the line (which would run from downtown to 38th street) is electrified and is ran by electrified light rail type of vehicles, then it would get around the DMU noise issues, and also make for a common train that could run on the Washington Street line. But, that is merely spitballing at this point.

    • There’s some important development happening in Fishers and Hamilton County in general, what with Carmel densifying thanks to their mixed-use development in the Arts and Design District and Fishers being one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. A train along the NE corridor probably makes sense in a ten-to-fifteen year window, especially if it spurs more transit-oriented planning among the city’s northern reaches.

      If throwing the NE corridor into the plan makes the plan more palatable, then there’s a very real chance that the Washington Street corridor plan will come along for the ride. And that sounds like a *very* good deal.

  • Andrew…make the plan more palatable to whom?
    To this day, about as many people live in Center Township as Carmel and Fishers combined, in a much more dense area. Add to Center the urbanized “old city” parts of Washington, Wayne, and Warren townships, also add downtown convention and sports event visitors who arrive through the airport, and it becomes obvious that any “Indianapolis Regional transit plan” has to focus first on the urban core to gain voter support and build ridership. And that means bus and modern streetcar. Unless that happens, and it’s possible to get somewhere other than the central station easily, the suburban rail won’t have enough ridership to justify its existence.

    • To be completely honest, suburbanites who fight commutes on a daily basis from that neck of the woods to downtown. The highway infrastructure is less than to be desired for the sheer amount of people commuting from the northeast suburbs to downtown. And, since wealthier households tend to vote more often, there’s a certain degree of concessions that have to be made to suburban commuters. One of the worst things that could happen to the whole proposal is if it gets labeled exclusively as transportation for the poor, and no one else.

      Any plan has to be well-designed to appeal to people most likely to vote, and in this case population density isn’t the only consideration when appealing to voters.

      • Starting from the asumption that people who live in the old Indianapolis city limits are all “poor” (and that, therefore, transit improvments here would serve only “the poor”) is the sort of suburban attitude that city residents don’t much care for. Butler-Tarkington, Meridian-Kessler, Irvington, Golden Hill, Woodruff Place, Emerson Heights, Old Northside, Herron Morton, Fall Creek Place, Chatham Arch, Lockerbie Square, among others, are not “poor” neighborhoods and the people who live there have made significant investments in city living.
        My point is this: most suburban commuters do not commute to places within 5 minutes walk of a downtown train station. Without beefed-up buslines and new streetcar service in the “old city”, the suburban commuter rail line will never significantly impact traffic congestion on the northeast highway system, and it will cost all of us a lot of money that can better be spent elsewhere first.

        • I agree on your point that any rail development would need dramatically improved bus lines and/or streetcar service within the “old city.” However, to a large degree we’re fighting perceptions and not realities whenever it comes to people who have never taken transit before. To many suburban commuters, a rail plan that doesn’t even consider them might cause offense.

          • Andrew…Perception is key, but not in the way you think. The transit tax would be enacted county-by-county. It is far more likely to be enacted in Marion County where transit improvements will serve a much wider base and be both obvious and welcomed. (We are, after all, the same people who voted a couple of hundred million in bonds to improve IPS facilities while township and suburban districts were defeating construction projects.) It won’t get enacted in Marion County if the perception is a disproportionate share of the expenditure will go toward the suburban rail line.
            In Hamilton County, the impact of the train will be limited to a 5-10 minute drive from Fishers and Castleton (and maybe Noblesville) stations…why will people in Atlanta, Cicero, much of Carmel (especially West Clay), Westfield and Sheridan vote to tax themselves to provide train service for the Hamilton Southeastern area?
            Those are the perceptions that have to be overcome, one that is shared between other suburbs and city: that the proposed rail line will benefit a narrow geographic area at great expense to others.

  • Chris, good point, airport access is something we should definitely be considering in these plans. When organizations that I’ve worked for have hosted travelers for trainings or site visits, they always wonder if they’ve been taken on a wild goose chase and, therefore, been overcharged, for their taxi from the airport. But, when we discuss routes and charges, they haven’t – it’s just that they’re used to much more efficient travel to from flight to downtown in other major metropolitan areas, often mentioning the lack of a publicly-run shuttle or subway service.

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