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.Â 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 doÂ not expect this to catalyze much development.Â The lack of heavy investment in infrastructure does not represent enough certainty when it comes to raising money to invest in new projects along theseÂ routes.Â Additionally, the time untilÂ LRT would be implimentedÂ 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 representingÂ 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 alsoÂ follow otherÂ planning blogs that say, “Don’t quibble over the mode, only the route!” However,Â light rail investment attracts a higher ROI compared to bus, or commuter rail.Â InvestmentÂ means new jobs andÂ dense development patterns. In a city sorely lackingÂ any sort of efficient transit oriented development, light rail on Washington Street would be a virtual overnight success.Â 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.Â An alternative could offer a compromise ifÂ TRUE BRT were to be constructed with a dedicated and seperated ROWÂ and robust stations that provided the appearance of long term stability to citizens of Marion County. Much like what I showed from ClevelandÂ in last week’s BRT post.
Peer cities would recognize our leap of faith in embracingÂ either of theÂ 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)Â component. I urge Indyconnect and the associated personal to rethink this oversight, and take a chance on something considered progressive and an almostÂ guaranteed success.
Kansas City MAX photosÂ from Metro Jacksonville