The Future of Transit in Central Indiana

Indyconnect Initial Plan (February 2010)
Indyconnect Initial Plan (February 2010)

When Indyconnect unveiled its first proposal for a long range transit plan for the Indianapolis region (February 2010), many people were happy about what had been included in the plan.Transit backers were thrilled that light rail transit was planned along Washington Street from the airport to the east side. Finally, vocal advocates (myself included) had something to look forward in terms of getting real urban rail here in Indianapolis. This plan was rolled out to the public and while many in Indy wanted to see more light rail in the form of Broad Ripple to Downtown, or some sort of route that mixed with Mass Ave and Fountain Square, it represented a step in the right direction; a significant step towards lowering overheads on current buses, increasing bus coverage and speeding it up along key corridors. The addition of 2 commuter rail lines was also included. It also unhappily painted a lot of new expanded roads on the map. This plan was shopped to the public for 9 months after which significant citizen input was collected.

Indyconnect Adopted Plan (November 2010)
Indyconnect Adopted Plan (November 2010)

Then, the second round of Indyconnect was planned and public meetings held. These started in November 2010. By then, a better fiscal picture had come into focus. The Indyconnect planners studied the potential revenue inputs, weighed them against a number of possible tax increase scenarios and finally, offered a recommendation based upon those fiscal constraints combined with public input and advanced planner knowledge of potential transit services. The map that was released was vastly changed from the prior version. Portions of  bus routes classified as “Express” in the February report had been converted to a form of “Bus Rapid Transit” along portions of their corridor; while still retaining some express routes on other corridors. BRT’s inclusion was a large change and provided some initial excitement that was later tempered by the news that this would not be dedicated guide-way BRT. Furthermore, and by far the biggest omission which stood out like a sore thumb to residents of Indianapolis was the elimination of light rail along Washington Street from the airport to the east side in the first 25 years of the plan. The plan introduces BRT along Washington Street in an early phase and then converts to LRT beyond the 25 year time horizon of the plan. Indeed, light rail had been removed from the 25 year plan altogether in what organizers chalked up as simply not enough money. To add insult to injury, the 2 proposed commuter lines had been significantly lengthened from the plan’s first version.

How was this allowed to happen? How could months of input and a loud voice (at least from urbanist’s perspectives) about adding MORE light rail for Indianapolis turn into no light rail at all? The answer lies within the numbers that the “business community (or private sector)” used to determine what the fiscal realities for this plan could be. Initially, a sales tax had been discussed (click link to open task force report). The prior plan would have taken somewhere between $10-$15 a month per household for those counties who opted into the plan based on voter referendum. State legislators have been cool on this plan altogether unfortunately, but have also bristled at the idea of a sales tax to cover expenses for the plan. Planners have given more attention to income tax as a primary alternative, without eliminating tax increment finance (TIF) districts and public private partnerships (PPP) as contributing sources of revenue and expedited implementation.

Furthermore, a recent event held by IndyHUB called, “Indy Talks, Leaders Listen” exposed a rough ballpark figure. Ron Gifford, the new leader of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, asked attendees of the Mass Transit breakout what they would like to see. Light rail from downtown to Carmel? Light rail from the airport to the east side? Bus rapid transit? Commuter rail? Obviously, most in the room raised their hand as willing to pay for this. The other shoe dropped when Mr. Gifford stated that all of that included into a 25 year plan, could require a 0.7% annual income tax. (or $350 annual in taxes on $50,000 salary).

The current Indyconnect long range plan, if given the chance to be adopted, could be funded using a 0.3% income tax increase; and thus the reason why light rail was cut from the initial plan.

MPO Transit Vision Document

Long Range Vision Map (striken from 1st draft) (image source: MPO report)
Long Range Vision Map (striken from 1st draft) (image source: MPO report)

Another small tidbit of knowledge that is worth knowing is that while the final adopted map (2nd map in post) is included in the MPO’s Long Range Transit Vision Document, it was not always so. Being the sleuth that I am, I had checked in on this document early on and a different version of the “transit vision” map was in it. Included on the map (3rd map in post) in that version was more BRT for downtown, more potential light rail (Broad Ripple to University of Indy via DT) as well as a longer envisioned Washington Street route and additional future bus routes. I was told that the reason this was removed from the current vision document was its non-approval by policy makers. However, it DOES demonstrate that the heads of Indyconnect heard what we were saying and at least drew the lines on the map.  Indeed, if you read the entire document, it spells out what the future could look in Indianapolis. The proposed BRT lines being switched to light rail or streetcar and additional commuter rail lines being built.

Concluding Thoughts

Could Light Rail someday look like this on Washington St?
Could Light Rail someday look like this on Washington St?

So where do we go from here? Many people are obviously unhappy that the plan was stripped down notwithstanding the fact that we have not been given an opportunity to vote on it. First off, we as citizens need to urge our lawmakers at the state level to get on board with allowing a tax referendum to occur for this plan. There are currently grassroots efforts underway among local transit advocates to adopt a resolution of support to present to lawmakers in the 2011 legislative session. Urban Indy was the first organization to adopt the resolution (click to open .pdf) and the effort is currently building steam with many noteable organizations signing on to support a referendum to voters in 2012. Getting a referendum is the largest hurdle of them all at this point in time. Second, how do we lobby for more funding to make the longer view parts of the MPO vision document happen sooner? How do we get the Indyconnect planners to bump that 0.3% figure up to 0.5% or more so that practical light rail or streetcars for Indy are a potential reality in our lifetime?

I ask you, our readers, is an income tax who’s monthly amount is equal to what a half a tank of gasoline costs, worth the potential transportation impact?

For my part, I am all in.

Comments 16

  • I am completely in favor of getting this referendum on the ballots, and I would personally vote in favor of it, but if you think it’s going to pass, I don’t think you’ve paid enough attention to the other recent referendums around here.

    What happens then?

  • Indiana’s local income tax system is flawed in favor of suburban counties: it requires those of us who live in Marion County to pay for all the regional services (roads, sewers, public safety) used daily by commuters, who pay their income tax to their suburban counties. I would not support a Marion County income tax increase UNLESS it paid for Marion County (Washington Street and north-south) light rail instead of regional commuter rail that is useless to me and to most other Marion County residents.
    A regional sales tax is way better than an income tax, as it would capture money from suburbanites and visitors (who’d use the transit system).

  • Curt: First, thanks for all your continued good work and analysis on these regional transit issues. Your post highlights the significant issue that the Transit Task Force is working hard to address: how to create a comprehensive regional transit system that promotes great transportation options, economic growth and community development in Marion County and surrounding communities and that is also affordable — both for users and taxpayers. You’ll recall that the statement I made at the Indy Talks session was meant to illustrate how much a hypothetical plan might cost if fully implemented on an immediate timetable — I wasn’t assigning a specific cost to a particular plan, and certainly wasn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t be pursuing many of those system elements in a comprehensive plan. We clearly should; the challenge is balancing the costs with the available resources.

    We’re working hard to find creative ways to fund and finance as robust a transit system as possible, including the potential of light rail on the corridors you and others have suggested, all with the goal of keeping the local funding affordable and acceptable to the voters. Part of that analysis is determining what the local contribution might look like; you’ll recall that our original plan proposed funding the local share through a local option sales tax, but at this point, it appears that this kind of funding mechanism doesn’t have enough support at the General Assembly, which is why the Indy Connect analysis suggested a local option income tax. We’re committed to finding the best of the available options, and appreciate the continued support of Urban Indy, our partners at CIRTA, and the other organizations that are lending their voices to support this effort.

  • The public dialogue, outside of those advocating for 21st century transportation, regularly confines the discussion of transportation to economics. Mass transportation is more than an issue of economics and geographic mobility. There are major public health consequences that are often absent from the conversation about transit in central Indiana. Policy makers should stop considering these policies (public health, mass transit, the fiscal health of the city, etc.) as isolated from one another. Consequences of inadequate transit stretch well beyond economics and as long as policy makers are blind (or stubborn) to the interrelatedness of the issues, solutions will evade them. The following two studies are compelling evidence that car-centric policies have failed to consider the health of the people of Indianapolis, and instead have punished our health and pocketbooks.|newswell|text||s

  • I rode the bus this morning; one of the older ones. For some reason there was a lot of water in the lining and it was dripping down on people. HahahahahAHAHAHAHA LIFE IS ABSURD

  • Not to mention the fact that fossil fuel usage increases levels of mercury and other toxins in water and air, the stress on the ecological systems, and in lung problems and premature deaths (please see for more information and resources). We’ve got to start solving problems by looking comprehensively at the consequences of our decisions.

    Also, few mention the increased stress levels resulting from the 1-2 hours we spend in the car every day as we stressfully weave in and out of traffic, attempting to avoid all of the other stressed out drivers and rushing to pick up kids or to make an appointment. Imagine a life where we get to interact with each other as we bustle around the city, spending our time exchanging ideas and good manners in listening to a stranger. It’s a quality of life issue.

  • These are all fantastic comments that add to this conversation. Regarding economics, Indianapolis (and Indiana as a whole) seem to have built a strategy of low taxes to try and attract new residents. This shortage of tax dollars manifests itself in poor infrastructure, poor zoning codes, neighborhoods that fail to maintain themselves, so on and so forth. Often times, low sticker prices will attract people to move into and live in a community. However, as we have seen by the continued disinvestment in our urban neighborhoods, they fall into disrepair as people move further and further away. That adds to the fringe issues that make a robust transit system so much more benefitical. Better air quality. Better fitness. Propensity to engage your fellow citizens no matter their socio-economic background. Transit creates so many intangible benefits when it rises above being a “social service provider”. There are places where people choose to ride the train or bus daily. These people are black, white, asian, hispanic. Rich. Poor. Middle class. When we all mingle, we all get to know and appreciate one another and we are made into more well rounded citizens.
    Im sure I will get accused of trying to “socially engineer” people, but I hate being socially engineered to go to the drive through, or have to drive so far to get groceries. Something has to change

  • This is not social engineering. This is giving citizens the options to engineer their own social experience and social environment. Mass transit creates more opportunity to express free will and individual self-reliance while fostering a more trusting and interactive sense of community.

  • Just to add to this discussion of how urban living, density, mass transit goes beyond our little local world…I recently read an article in NYTimes ( titled “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself”, which briefly touches on the subject of booming cities that are chewing up agricultural land and competing with farmers for water. The consequences of letting “free market” decide everything (including how our cities develop) can be dire. Too little or too much regulation can be equally destructive (e.g. financial crisis).

  • I’m not really sure how this income tax would work: If Marion County votes for the tax, does that mean people who work, or people who live, in Marion County get taxed? I know that the state income tax actually takes into consideration where one works and lives on the yearly tax forms.

    That being said, I think the problem is that some people are going to see others as getting more of a benefit. A flat push for an equal tax rate in the “metro area” won’t pass. For starters, the current IndyConnect plan needs to be corrected and expanded for Hancock County. They claim that I-70 will have expanded lanes for travel from Post Road to Mt. Comfort Road if this plan passes. Well, the state has already dedicated funds and construction is in full effect. At best, this comes off as someone not doing their homework. At worst, it comes off as deliberate misinformation in an effort to get people to back the plan. Also, there are many, many people in Greenfield who drive to downtown Indy for work/school. If they want Hancock County to vote to pass this, they really need to consider two express bus routes: One from Mt. Comfort Rd interchange and one from the St. Rd. 9 interchange. The bike and pedestrian trails won’t be enough.

    Secondly, why should folks in Hancock County pay the same amount in taxes as those who are getting the Holy Grail of transit: Rail? It seems to me that folks in Noblesville, Fishers, Indy, Franklin, and Greenwood should be paying more than those just getting express bus service. Their growth and benefit will be much higher and more widespread than any TIF district created. Lastly, if all the counties were taxed at the same level, I would want those station TIF districts to be very, very large. Every tax stream should be diverted from the city coffers of the above mentioned municipalities and directed solely to this project. Of course the local opposition to massive TIF districts will be huge. The politicians in those areas that stand to get rail will push hard to make those districts as small as possible.

    • As the plan stands, each county would have to ask for a referendum. I do not know how funding levels will work out. Will it be the same level for all if there is a referendum? Will each county get to choose how much it sends to contribute to the regional plan? Will a bigger contribution change the plan? Something else to keep in mind is that even though Hancock county might be sending an equal percentage of taxes to the “regional fund” would there be enough people paying into said fund to justify rail? Rail isn’t a pay for it and you get it. It is a premium service and lives and dies by the amount of daily boardings it gets. It would be a hard sell to say that rail from Hamilton County to downtown would be outperformed by rail from Hancock County to downtown.
      Additionally, all the donut counties pay taxes to their counties. With the disproportionate amount of suburban employees who commute into Marion County and back out, who dont currently pay any taxes on the roads that they drive on in Marion County, we (Urban Indy) see the plan as a step towards correcting the inequality in funding.

  • To start off ive been to chicago, LA NYC Minn theyres no better help to a city but to have light rail less stress, saves time from being in a 2 hour commute, also will bring more people into downtown that dont feel like driving, people this is for the future ot might be tuff at first on taxes but that lightens up after a while …indy needs this and we all know it for our own and our childrens future . As i see it indy is growing not lightning fast but faster them other cities around just making more traffic and stress…please do this we must have it

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