Local Columnists Missing the Mark on Transit

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

For years here in Indianapolis, transit has been the elusive unicorn for activists. More funding for IndyGO? How about another study. Light rail? Let’s study it. Again. Recently, there was a heated debate between activists and the state legislature over a House lead effort to strip 18% of state supplied funding to transit agencies that would be used for operating expenses and federal level grant matching. The Senate inserted this funding back in and luckily, all agencies within Indiana heaved a collective sigh of relief when it passed a review. There has also been a lot of talk by our local newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, regarding the next 30 years of Indianapolis. As part of the countdown to next year’s Super Bowl, the paper has asked some of the columnists to craft articles talking about the issues that need addressed. The list is long and of course transit has received some mention, although never with much vigor.

Why then, with transit being such a contentious issue, has it not gotten as much attention as it is rightfully due? I say this obviously as someone invested in the conversation locally. I have devoted far too many hours of personal time to trying to move the transit conversation forward. Spent a week of my vacation in Portland for Railvolution last year. Attend many meetings. And recently, I was added to the NE Corridor Advisory Committee.  All with no pay to show for it, something that my family points out often 😉

When I have a small voice to offer, I get frustrated when those with a big voice, do not follow suit. It tells me that they don’t care about it as much. Sure, there are plenty of issues to cover, and they do that well. However, it would be nice to have our local columnists taking on the issues with transit as we do. I had to make sure I was plugged into key sources on this year’s budget issues relating to transit. Otherwise, I would not have received that news. Not if I am reading the Star. Education, public safety, unions and abortion all got a lot of attention but rarely was there ever any mention of the 18% cut in transit funding.

I will wrap this little rant by linking to a couple of recent high profile articles that demonstrate what I am talking about and which fail to mention anything about public transit in their message; both of which would have been great places to insert at least a mention. You be the judge, and tell me if I am wrong about this.

Comments 18

  • Every time I hear of mass transit plans, I find a grand, sweeping, all-inclusive model that hinges on connecting the distant suburbs with downtown.


    I think the transit system need to be scrapped in it’s current incarnation, and replaced with one that focuses on a smaller area, infusing it with the best transit service possible. Someone always points out how mass transit doesn’t work in a low-density region like ours. OK, so acknowledge that and adapt. The high-density core of Indy is where the highest percentage of car-less residents and people who walk or bike to work live.

    How about a blanket of transit downtown and perhaps extending out a 3-5 miles radius? Give people a way to get from A to C without requiring an extended B standing on a street corner downtown. Add in a smaller replica around Fountain Square and Broad Ripple and grow that over time to more areas.

    I would love to make the trip 2 miles to the local shopping district by convenient reliable and frequent mass transit, instead of by car.

    Satellite parking lots could be created so people could drive a little and take the bus the rest of the way. I have seen that in Wash DC and other places. It seems to work. Not everyone will ever have a bus at their front door so this gives them a way to use the transit system effectively.

  • I’m too lazy to look it up, but what percentage of the total budget is getting cut 18%? If the mass transit budget was only 1% of the total budget and it’s getting cut down to 0.82%, then it probably doesn’t have place in an article up against education and public safety, whose budgets I assume are much higher. (BUT, the inclusion of the library thing is a little more curious, and gives you a much better argument.)

    I don’t think you’re wrong that they could/should have mentioned transit in those articles; I just think you’re overestimating how much the average resident/voter cares about public transit (or lack thereof).

    I think the bottom line is: Indy is a vehicular city. If stories about streetcars and buses were selling papers or pushing pageviews, the Star would be all over it.

    • If every journalist wrote only about topics that appeal to masses, we would only have, well, the Stars. I think there is a decent amount of interest for mass transit in Indy, but I agree with you that most of those interested people probably don’t read the Star.

  • You guys make some valid points. Perhaps from a financial point of view, there is a considerably lower impact. However, there used to be a time when newspapers (editors, journalists, columnists) reported on important issues whether or not they were popular with the readers. They used to be an engine for change and uncovering issues.
    Obvioulsy from my point of view, transit is a HUGE issue. There is the potential to positively influence the entire region’s lifestyle by moving forward with aggressive transit based land planning. You can see the positive results today in places like Denver, Seattle & Portland. Civic leaders probably did a back flip in those cities this year when the census results proved that their aggressive transit expansion plans were paying off with large gains in the urban areas. That is not a random phenomenon. That is planned growth with transit as a large component. So yeah, it’s a HUGE issue in those places. It could be here too.
    What our journalists cover now, could be considered borderline pandering to the masses. There are a small few doing their part, but the rest hardly spare a thought. That frustrates me when there is potential for huge, positive, transformative change.

  • Transit construction is like road construction, it comes after the development and density is established. Portland has land use controls that preserve and create density. Indy does not. The only types of transit, besides bus, that makes sense in Indy right now is a commuter line to Fishers and BRT to the airport. There are just not enough residents downtown yet to justify the expense. Even in Mass Ave., the most successful area of downtown, there is not the density or distance needed to justify it.

  • Transit IS a tool for creating density. How can we drive a dense development via automobiles, if we are always making more room for them? Creating large surface lots or parking garages? There is no logic in that.

  • Eric, Fishers to DwnTwn line wouldn’t make sense because there isn’t the demand for multiple trips for that very long stretch. It’s 5 miles from Mass Ave. to BRV. Think about the percentage of residents between these 2 areas, who would use the line multiple times. It’s the only way to develop proper density and increase residential population between BRV and DwnTwn…naturally. Large scale transit planning–including the suburbs–should be a much later phase of development, once downtown and Midtown are more established.

  • I guess Indy needs to change it’s land use policy/controls?

  • I have my theory…3.1 mile streetcar line in Cincy will cost roughly $100 mil to build and $2.5 mil annually to operate. That’s peanuts compared to our usual road projects. Maybe that’s why nobody wants to cover it. 🙂

  • And btw, if we were doing up to 5-mile streetcar line in Indy, I would do something connecting IUPUI – center – Mass Ave (rough idea). I wonder what everyone else here would do with $100 mil assuming that you can build roughly 3.1 mile streetcar line…(I know this is a big if, but let’s say that the cost would be similar to Cincy’s).

  • Indy has a lot of negatives when it comes to mass transit. There are positives, but most of them are “potentialities”, not things already in place. This makes bean counters and

    For my part, even though light, fixed rail could be exactly what Curt says it could be, there are too many drawbacks to investing so much money into a project that lacks flexibility. Instead, I would think that successfully experimenting with more flexible options might begin to change minds.

    Currently, I think that the worst part of this discussion is that both sides have become inflexible and unyielding in championing their own positions. Perhaps $5/gallon gasoline will begin a thaw in certain quarters?

    Unfortunately, the biggest problem is with grand thinking (or forward, future, conceptual…) for most of the movers and shakers around here. Look at Lucas Oil Stadium as compared to Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, for example. Same architect, initial presentation was original, but local political input gave us what we got. A big, red horse barn with a leaky roof and pipes. Yet, anyone expects something different from types like this for mass transit?

  • JP: 3.1 miles is “track miles” versus a 2 way path that stretches for 3 miles. That is a biggie with the cincy line. Their plan looks solid though. Im very much looking forward to them getting shovels in the ground.
    As for relying on past success or failure KurtL, I would be remiss if I didnt speak up for what we thought was right. If we push far enough and have a borderline ridiculous plan to advocate for, when “they” get their hands into it, maybe we will still end up with something to be proud of.

  • Well, the anti-Streetcar people in Cincinnati aren’t quite through yet. So, one shouldn’t be counting their chickens there, just yet.

    I understand your PoV, Curt. But, when all that gets presented is “pie-in-the-sky”, it just gets their backs up amongst the opposition. You have been involved in this, and I haven’t really, but I have never really seen a nuts-and-bolts assessment of what of the entire gamut of possibilities.

    What I have seen is a combination of non-quantifiable opinions, lists of data on existing transit, table-thinks and “oh, lookey what those people in “X” have done” (in very different situations).

    Obviously we disagree about rail at this point. While rail (of whatever stripe) can succeed in places, here it cannot (at least – not yet). The whole economic developmental philosophy/model is still outward-looking, and I don’t think that significant economic (private) development has even shown signs of rebounding towards the center just yet.

    Since so much is in flux about the future, I hestitate to rely upon rail projects, because if one chooses incorrectly, then what is leftover is a boondoggle of epic proportions for the taxpayers. Second, rail is conceptualized incorrectly here (for now).

    Talk of bringing residents of Hamilton County to downtown Indy is not realizable. If anything, one should talk about riders going out to Hamilton County from the city core where the majority of jobs are. But, is that what rail should be doing? Reinforcing the outward flow of people from the central core of the city itself? In my opinion, that answer should be a resounding no. So, impasse.

    I much prefer flexible options (not tied to fixed infrastructure) while encouraging behavioral changes or waiting out the inevitable economic changes that most likely will come. While that isn’t optimal, I believe it to be more realistic, and more economical in the short term.

    I do think that we are at least on the same side of the fence, if not in the same field. Still, I am not trying to discourage you, but hope to introduce some additional ideas into a mix that I currently find to be much too narrow in scope.

  • KL, I respect your opinion. Your latest comment is well thought out. However, I do not feel like you are optimistic enough. Perhaps you do not buy into the same concepts that I do.
    I suppose I should preface my views by saying that I believe that transit can be used to assist in rebuilding the urban neighborhoods of Indianapolis. I know that other people see this simply as a means for moving people from point A to point B. So a lot of my advocating comes from a goal based upon rebuilding the spaces that we live in. Efficient transit, static transit (rail) draws real estate development. Point blank, that is public funding attracting private funding. Typically, the private funding is MUCH more beneficial for residents. When a state DOT decides to build a freeway, they design it with exit ramps. Along these exit ramps spring up gasoline/convenience stations, truck repair joints as well as other associated types of low density development. Sometimes in urban areas, apartment complexes are built next to them. All of these are designed with a car in mind. Large, expensive parking lots. Pavement. Etc.
    Conversly, urban rail is placed in tight spaces within the city. Sometimes, it is built within areas of disinvestment. When it is built, it too attracts development around it’s stations like a freeway off ramp. However, knowing that people wont need a car, parking lot demand is lower which means less overhead to put into non-tax generating pavement can be used to build more housing units. commercial units. etc.
    My point of view is based upon an urban rail development strategy like that. Buses do not do this. If they did, we wouldnt be pushing so hard to figure out how to rebuild our urban neighborhoods. Indy has a lot of buses. The headways could be improved, but that is not likely to attract any other development.
    So when you say, “We arent ready for it now.” I wonder, “When will the time ever be right?” when we have done something else besides rail transit to attract people to live in the city? Will reductions in crime bring those people back? Will better schools? How do we catalyze those efforts? Im open to suggestions. Transit is not the end all solution, but its a great catalyst to getting people to choose to live in the city again.
    As for using transit to take people to Hamilton County, I do not think that is as efficient a means of spending our limited tax dollars. Sure, servicing the office complex along 31 would be nice, but a freeway is scheduled to be built there now. The only conceivable place to route rail transit would be along Pennsylvania behind the office buildings. And then somehow, get it back into Marion County for the reverse commuters who live there and would use it.

  • Curt, valid points all. I do understand your position, really. The good thing for your position is that you are there to advocate for it. In that, I do wish you luck.

    You are certainly correct that I am not optimistic enough. Unfortunately, I understand those who can’t see your position, all too well. And in that, I don’t see enough hope that their closed minds will magically open up no matter the contravailing information they get provided.

  • So did you call the Star and ask to speak with a reporter about this issue?

  • I have actually made my position known to both of these people. Whether or not they chose to change their coverage will be up to them.

  • Do you have any video of that? I’d like to find out more details.

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