What Indianapolis Can Learn from Cincinnati’s Rail Lessons

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.  In the ensuing eight months, public meetings have been held, discussions have occurred, and opinions have been shared about the initiative’s routes, seen in the image below, and their associated pros and cons.  From this debate, the plan is expected to be revised with the goal of creating a transit plan that best reflects the public’s desires and expectations.  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.  But from now until then, IndyConnect supporters must ensure that the plan continues to move in the right direction and maintains critical public support.   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 region’s two largest employment centers: downtown and Uptown where the University of Cincinnati is located.  Cincinnati has been actively trying to implement rail transit since 1998 when the MetroMoves plan, seen in the image below, was first conceived.  Similar to IndyConnect, MetroMoves was a regional transportation system plan that included commuter rail, light rail, an expanded bus system, and even urban circulators.  By comparison, Metro Moves was significantly more ambitious than IndyConnect, both in scope, number of routes, mode types, and price.  And similar to IndyConnect’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.  Perhaps the timing was bad, gas prices weren’t overly expensive, and maybe the politics of the debate brought out the NIMBY’s in full force, but aside from the excuses, the plan was defeated for a number of reasons that could have been avoided.  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 plan’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 streetcar’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.  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 plan’s message needs to be clear and concise from the beginning.  Otherwise opposition and NIMBY’s will define the context of the political battle.
  • The plan’s message should focus on offering transit options, economic development, and creating a sense of place.  According to John Schneider, these messages have proven to resonate with the public.  Meanwhile, messages of rail transit’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.  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.  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.  Unlike suburban areas, urban neighborhoods feature a high population of residents that are more likely to support rail initiatives.  Plus, serving urban areas is more efficient, cost effective, and has a higher potential of creating great 24/7 ‘places’ 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.  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.  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.  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.  This coup for Cincinnati can happen in Indianapolis if rail supporters here can learn from MetroMoves mistakes and successfully apply them to IndyConnect.  But as it stands today, the plan is not urban oriented, serves commuting patterns, and does not seem to have a clear message.  Hopefully the plan will continue to be refined and updated to ensure it does not suffer the same pitfalls and failures as MetroMoves.  After all, a modern rail transit system is essential in creating a 21st Century Indianapolis that competes with and outshines its Midwest counterparts.

Comments 16

  • The streetcar has never been voted on – that’s the big difference. I believe that if the Cincinnati streetcar faced the voters in an up or down vote, it would lose. The Issue 9 ballot failed, but I think that’s more because of the clear overreach and governance issues it created than it was an endorsement of the streetcar.

  • Very true Aaron. But IndyConnect will eventually face a vote. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all for Indy should be that the IndyConnect plan ought to be scaled down and attain funding through ways other than a public vote. This is what Cincinnati did. I thought about that very point when writing this piece but decided to not go down that route since it seems set that there will eventually be a vote on the issue. Thus, MetroMoves, more so than the streetcar, offers a lot of lessons for IndyConnect.

  • The referendum side of Indyconnect will address more than anything, operational costs. While no plan has been firmly debated, what I have heard tossed around is that some would go to construction but mostly operations; which is what plagues IndyGO now. Expanding, what would you suggest for funding Greg? Private investment handle the construction of rail lines?

    Cincinnati did the streetcar a little differently than funding for LRT here would go as well. The large bucket of federal funding came from a program that didnt ask for an intense EIS like rail called for in Indyconnect will. The TIGER program has different rules. The fact that cincy was able to scrape funding together to get construction costs covered is admirable, but how often will they be able to do it when people start asking for expansion of the streetcar? If the streetcar is shown to be successful, it won’t be difficult I think to get people to open their wallets.

  • I’m not suggesting private funding of rail lines. But, like the Cincinnati streetcar, the project should be funded through a myriad of sources from local, state, and federal dollars. In order to do this, the initial project would be more small scaled than what is currently being put out there, maybe an urban circulator – one of the phases I outlined in my streetcar post a week ago. When all is said and done, it will have taken Cincinnati 6 years to line up the funding for the streetcar without a public vote. They tried to get MetroMoves passed in 4 years with an up or down vote on the ballot and look how that went. Perhaps if IndyConnect is in fact going to the ballot, they can avoid this pitfall by not repeating the mistakes MetroMoves made that I outlined above.

  • Midwestern cities that currently do not have rail transit need to figure out a way in which to introduce it to its population. City after city that has seen rail transit introduced has had to fight a hard fight initially and then reap the benefits of positive public opinion once it is up and running.

    It’s difficult for people to truly understand the benefits of rail transit until they can experience it for themselves in their own environment. Once that happens the benefits become real and the snowball effect tends to take hold.

    Cincinnati tried, and failed, with the MetroMoves plan in 2002. But city leaders decided to implement a smaller portion of that rail transit plan that they could pay for without increasing taxes. Once Cincinnati’s modern streetcar system is operational I suspect that future rail transit projects will be easier to make happen…and this is why there is such a strong fight from anti-rail groups initially. They know that the first-phase is a game changer.

    So, what I would recommend is that Indy take on a chunk that they can chew. Develop an initial portion of the larger plan that they know will be successful. Build it, and let the population experience its benefits first-hand. From there things will be much easier.

  • I can’t imagine a better route for a modern streetcar than one running along Meridian Street from, say, just north of the Circle to 38th Street. It’s the perfect length for a streetcar line, the buildings are, for the most part, terrific, plus you have a bunch sites on parallel and crossing streets. You have what is increasingly rare for a Midwestern city — an almost completely intact “Main Street.”

  • I agree with John, though I’d say (once again) a modern streetcar needs to run from just south of the Circle…the Lilly/mall/hotel/stadium/North of South area…around the Circle, and all the way to Broad Ripple and Glendale. Just for starters. 🙂

    This would connect lots of work, school, sports, leisure, entertainment, and dining destinations with homes in some of the most densely developed areas of the city.

    Disclaimer: I get paid to advocate for development on Meridian, and my office is about 30 feet from the street.

  • The Meridian corridor is an excellent location for upgraded transit opportunities. Both Meridian Street and Washington Street would be ideal for transit because of their strategic importance to Indy’s street grid and the density of existing construction present.

  • As part of IndyGo’s new Comprehensive Operational Analysis, they’re putting in a dedicated circulator bus to run from downtown to 38th and Meridian. I’d say that if ridership gets heavy enough for this “midtown circulator,” then it would make perfect sense for IndyGo to install a streetcar system.

    Right now, I don’t see that happening. The physical built environment around 38th and Meridian isn’t quite sustainable as an endpoint for a full-blown streetcar yet. If we prematurely build one without the ridership to justify it, IndyGo could end up mothballing the project and switching back to a bus system anyway. The demand-side for transit has to be there, and that means developing the built infrastructure of the 38th-and-Meridian terminus and expanding access of other parts of town to this area in particular.

    Thoughts on how best to build up the immediate environs?

  • ^ My first thought is, extend the streetcar to 38th, and just watch what happens around the end of the line. Especially with a layover there, you’ll see a fair amount of spontaneous TOD.

    But say you pulled it back to a point just south of Fall Creek Parkway, a little more in the swim of things. Doing so might also avoid any issues with respect to the load-carrying capacity of the Meridian Street bridge over Fall Creek.

    I doubt you’ll have much success with a circulator-type bus running on Meridian. Doing so will probably just confirm the mantra of the critics: “See, no one rides the buses, so why would they ever use a streetcar?”

    Broad Ripple and Glendale are probably out-of-range for effective streetcar operations centered on downtown.

    • Meridian Kessler and Broad Ripple grew up around a downtown-centered streetcar system, John.

    • I worry how transit-oriented development could be in that vicinity while we still have extremely restrictive zoning practices for anywhere outside of downtown. When I talked to some folks from the Division of Planning about mixed-use development, all I could coax out of them is that the only reason downtown was zoned in that fashion in the first place was because they couldn’t separate the land uses to begin with.

      There’s a lot of fairly recent commercial space along 38th Street, and I could hazard a guess that the reason why they’re all built with copious parking and single-story buildings is because of the zoning requirements.

      Just to emphasize something they said repeatedly at the Urban Land Institute conference: you can’t lay down a transportation system without completely reevaluating land use planning and zoning requirements. Many developers actually WANT to build denser, it’s just that they’re not allowed to by inflexible zoning requirements and obfuscatory bureaucracies.

      I guess what I would like to see more of is incremental transit upgrades while aggressively bending zoning requirements to encourage density. Zoning codes are relatively cheap to change, while changing transit systems is an uphill battle.

  • Andrew, the places where people want to put streetcars in Indy are already dense enough to support them…which is why we want to put streetcars there. We don’t have to build a whole new city around them.

    • The population density might be high enough to justify it on commuting patterns as a point of origin, but what I’m worrying about is the 38th St. and Meridian area’s viability as a destination. Contrast it with Broad Ripple, which is a much better “destination,” but there aren’t current plans for circulator-type transit specifically to Broad Ripple.. Much of the commercial streetscape along 38th Street especially has been torn down and replaced with single-story, car-dependent infrastructure. If nothing else, then the zoning restrictions will have to change to support future TOD as spurred by a streetcar, so we don’t work cross-purposes.

  • Andrew, a streetcar line only from downtown to 38th would lack too many connections and it would really be a non-starter.

    This is why I continue to advocate running modern streetcar all the way from Fountain Square through Downtown to Broad Ripple and Glendale. Such a line would touch libraries, museums, schools and colleges, parks, greenway trails, stadia, government offices, health care, bars, clubs, restaurants, lots of jobs, lots of homes, and lots of retail including groceries, drugstores, and big-boxes.
    I can only think of a couple of my non-work activities that wouldn’t be available along such a line.

    • I can whole-heartedly agree with such a streetcar plan. I was merely building off of the current circulator bus they’re planning on putting along the 38th St.-Downtown corridor along Meridian. I think that if the density along that route were high enough to support a streetcar and install it at some point, later down the road an argument could be made to extend that line north and south.

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