In early February of this year, IndyConnect, the transit plan that focuses on altering the central Indiana transportation system away from its current auto-only orientation towards one featuring rail, was released to the general public.Â In the ensuing eight months, public meetings have been held, discussions have occurred, and opinions have been shared about the initiativeâ€™s routes, seen in the image below, and their associated pros and cons.Â From this debate, the plan is expected to be revised with the goal of creating a transit plan that best reflects the publicâ€™s desires and expectations.Â Certainly, the plan must echo public sentiment when it gets placed on the November 2011 ballot and asks for a tax increase to help fund the project.Â But from now until then, IndyConnect supporters must ensure that the plan continues to move in the right direction and maintains critical public support.Â Â To do this, Indianapolis can look no further than Cincinnati, Ohio for learning lessons on how to successfully implement modern rail transit in the Midwest.
In just a few months, Cincinnati will begin construction on a modern streetcar system that will connect the regionâ€™s two largest employment centers: downtown and Uptown where the University of Cincinnati is located.Â Cincinnati has been actively trying to implement rail transit since 1998 when the MetroMoves plan, seen in the image below, was first conceived.Â Similar to IndyConnect, MetroMoves was a regional transportation system plan that included commuter rail, light rail, an expanded bus system, and even urban circulators.Â By comparison, Metro Moves was significantly more ambitious than IndyConnect, both in scope, number of routes, mode types, and price.Â And similar to IndyConnectâ€™s future, MetroMoves was faced the dreaded November ballot and asked tax increase to help fund the project.
Unfortunately for rail advocates in the Queen City, in 2002 the plan was overwhelmingly defeated by a ratio of 2:1.Â Perhaps the timing was bad, gas prices werenâ€™t overly expensive, and maybe the politics of the debate brought out the NIMBYâ€™s in full force, but aside from the excuses, the plan was defeated for a number of reasons that could have been avoided.Â Fortunately for Indianapolis, many of these can be translated into lessons which can be directly applied to IndyConnect and its impending November 2011 ballot referendum and ensure success for the planâ€™s implementation.
After conducting research, thinking about the issue, and having talked with John Schneider, chair of the MetroMoves campaign and an important leader in the streetcarâ€™s success, and Brad Thomas, founder of CincyStreetcar.com, I have put together a few overarching lessons that reflect the mistakes of MetroMoves and why it ultimately failed.Â From these, a better IndyConnect plan can be put together with the goal of ensuring the referendum is successful in the November 2011 elections.
- The planâ€™s message needs to be clear and concise from the beginning.Â Otherwise opposition and NIMBYâ€™s will define the context of the political battle.
- The planâ€™s message should focus on offering transit options, economic development, and creating a sense of place.Â According to John Schneider, these messages have proven to resonate with the public.Â Meanwhile, messages of rail transitâ€™s ability to reduce traffic congestion have not.
- The plan itself should be small in scale and not overwhelm potential voters with what may seem like an over-reaching plan and costly scope.Â Still though, the plan should outline a clear vision of how to expand the rail once the first phase is implemented.
- The plan should focus rail transit in neighborhoods/places that support such transit.Â IndyConnect supporters need to have a working knowledge of where their transit supporters are and attempt to service them with key rail routes.
- The plan should be urban.Â Unlike suburban areas, urban neighborhoods feature a high population of residents that are more likely to support rail initiatives.Â Plus, serving urban areas is more efficient, cost effective, and has a higher potential of creating great 24/7 â€˜placesâ€™ than in suburban locations, where train stops have a better chance of becoming large parking lots than real places.
- The plan should cater to everyday trips, not commuting patterns, as only 20% of trips in modern America are for commuting purposes.Â Creating a transit system around 1/5 of total trips is about as smart as Wal-Mart planning parking lot capacity for peak use (day after Thanksgiving).
- Partner with an elected official and have that person act as the champion of the project.Â In order to do this successfully, political timing is very important when putting forth a rail initiative on the ballot in the Midwest.
What was learned from these lessons are why the Cincinnati Streetcar has been a successful venture and why construction will start later this year.Â The streetcar plan, seen in the image above, is a relatively small scaled, urban circulator that will serve residents who support rail transit, will be the first modern streetcar implemented in the Midwest.Â This coup for Cincinnati can happen in Indianapolis if rail supporters here can learn from MetroMoves mistakes and successfully apply them to IndyConnect.Â But as it stands today, the plan is not urban oriented, serves commuting patterns, and does not seem to have a clear message.Â Hopefully the plan will continue to be refined and updated to ensure it does not suffer the same pitfalls and failures as MetroMoves.Â After all, a modern rail transit system is essential in creating a 21st Century Indianapolis that competes with and outshines its Midwest counterparts.