College Ave In-Street Rail: Exploring the Feasibility…


Portland MAX Yellow Line (image credit: Dan Haneckow)
Portland MAX Yellow Line (image credit: Dan Haneckow)

A lot of the recent controversy here at Urban Indy has revolved around the unannounced road diet that Indy seems to have went on this year. During this construction season alone, a lane has been wiped clean and converted to biking facilities along 46th street, 62nd/Broad Ripple Ave, Shelby St & Madison Ave, Washington Street downtown, Capitol Ave and Virginia Ave; and those are just the ones that I can think of off the top of my head. In most cases bike lanes were striped along existing roadways and in the case of Shelby Street, a separated bike track was constructed.

Shelby Street Bike Track nearing completion (image credit: Curt Ailes)
Shelby Street Bike Track nearing completion (image credit: Curt Ailes)

Thinking about the displacement of cars in Indy and the potential controversy involved, I thought back to a prior topic and popular topic that we debate here and that is the idea of light rail from Broad Ripple to Downtown. I know that I am not the only one who has looked at this route and in fact, I can tell you that at the highest transit planning level, it has been looked at and debated; although I suspect nothing will come to fruition in the near term nor when Indyconnect goes to the statehouse to convince lawmakers to allow a referendum for transit funding. However, that can’t stop some of us from daydreaming about it.

College Ave/Broad Ripple Ave at a glance
College Ave/Broad Ripple Ave at a glance

Perhaps the most difficult portion of such a route would be College Ave between 38th street and Broad Ripple Village. I say this with the assumption that any line built would likely travel along existing streets since there are no real empty corridors to put a rail line in that doesn’t involve mass destruction of homes or existing biking & pedestrian facilities (Monon Trail) to make it happen. Broad Ripple Ave would be difficult as well and presents a real opportunity to be innovative with the design of such a route. Preserving the old auto-culture of the area and promoting the transit-based design of the village is a real challenge. This post will not tackle the village portion but instead, the College Ave portion of a supposed route.

Intersection of Interstate Ave & Alberta - Portland, OR (image source, Google Maps)
Intersection of Interstate Ave & Alberta - Portland, OR (image source, Google Maps)

As I often do, I looked at other cities and what they may have done to address similar design constraints. Looking back at history is a key way to expand upon the efforts someone else has laid the ground work for. One route in particular looks a lot like College Ave along this stretch and it is the MAX Yellow Line in Portland, OR. The Yellow Line is for the most part, a median running light rail line with a pair of north/south tracks. It was built in the median of Interstate Ave; a street that before the arrival of the train was similar in built form to College Ave. I looked to Scott Johnson (EngineerScotty) of Portland Transport for some history on the corridor and he had this to say,

A long, LONG time ago, N. Interstate Avenue was the route of US99W, and one of the primary arterials into the city from the state of Washington (the other being US99E, which ran down Union Avenue, nowadays called NE Martin Luther King Boulevard).  It was made obsolete as an arterial by the construction of the Minnesota Street Freeway (I-5) a few blocks to the east, but it still existed as a highway (later decomissioned as a US highway, becoming OR99W) for quite some time.  Eventually, OR99W was truncated to end in downtown Portland, and Interstate became a local street.

Portland MAX Yellow Line (image credit: Dan Haneckow)
Portland MAX Yellow Line (image credit: Dan Haneckow)

During its heyday, the route of OR99W was a four-lane urban boulevard (with left turn pockets at major intersections, but no continuous turning refuge); and no on-street parking–definitely NOT a pedestrian friendly route.  In the old days, OR99W became a controlled access highway as it approached downtown (some of the rampwork is still there); crossed the Willamette River via the Steel Bridge (which then had two auto lanes per direction), and then continued south as a “freeway” (crude by modern standards) along the west bank of the Willamette via Harbor Drive, and then continued on south via Barbur Boulevard.

When the Baldock Freeway opened (the first section of I-5 through Portland, running from downtown south to Wilsonville), Harbor Drive was routed on that.

Eventually, the downtown Portland freeway network was completed–the Marquam Bridge and the Eastbank Freeway (I-5), and the Fremont Bridge and the Stadium Freeway (I-405), and Harbor Drive became functionally obsolete, leading to its eventual (and much ballyhooed) removal and conversion to a park (Waterfront Park).  SW/NW Front Avenue (now Naito Parkway) became the main waterfront thoroughfare; the western ramps on the Steel Bridge were redesigned.

Portland MAX Yellow Line (image credit: Dan Haneckow)
Portland MAX Yellow Line (image credit: Dan Haneckow)

In 1986, the first MAX line opened, which used the center two lanes of the Steel Bridge to cross the river.  Originally, these two lanes were shared with auto traffic (now they are exclusively used by light rail).  In the 1990s, the construction and opening of the Rose Garden arena (where the Trail Blazers now play) and the development of the Rose Quarter area, immediately beyond the eastern end of the Steel Bridge, led to further restructuring of the road.  But Interstate Avenue essentially remained a four-lane boulevard all the way from the Rose Quarter area to the Kenton neighborhood.

Portland MAX Yellow Line (image credit: Dan Haneckow)
Portland MAX Yellow Line (image credit: Dan Haneckow)

When the Yellow Line was put in, they simply replaced the center two traffic lanes with light rail.  The result has been a much better pedestrian environment.

E Burnside Street east of Gateway was revamped in a similar fashion to make room for the eastside MAX–a four lane boulevard was turned into two through lanes (one per direction) and two tracks for light rail.

 The final design of the Yellow Line included some parallel parking along the street but as you can see from a lot of the images, a lot of the route is now a single auto lane, a bike lane, the occasional left turn pocket and some parking here and there.

Intersection of Interstate Ave & Alberta - Portland, OR (image source, Google Streetview)
Intersection of Interstate Ave & Alberta – Portland, OR (image source, Google Streetview)


Could College Ave survive in a similar fashion? Could a corridor that is now 3 or 4 lanes in most parts with parking available along a large portion, be reduced to something that resembles the Yellow Line in Portland? Would residents living in single family dwellings along such a route stomach not being able to park directly on College Ave along certain portions? I know that there would be upset folks, but would the pain of short term citizen unrest be worth the potential windfall of a median College Ave light rail design?

 Certainley, each city compared here has its own unique constraints. Interstate Ave, with history as a guide, was a much more auto oriented corridor in it’s past. College Ave locally, has a very storied transit past which is evident at any of the nodes such as 46th, 49th, 52nd, 54th & Broad Ripple Ave with the old mixed use style buildings still used to this day.

It should be pointed out that Indy is not Portland and never will be. However, it would be remiss to not explore the lessons that a progressive transit oriented city has pioneered as Indianapolis gears up for what could potentially be the next evolution of regional transportation.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Engineer Scotty of Portland Transport for the history lesson on the Interstate Ave corridor and to Dan Haneckow for allowing the usage of his fantastic photos of the Yellow Line. Both of them contribute to their community through their blogs which you should check out. Thanks guys!

Comments 24

  • This perhaps one of the best comparative case studies I’ve seen on this. I’m of course, all about this. I know plenty of people and businesses who love parking along College would be upset at first, but I guess, to an extent, I see it along the same lines as the current unrest regarding the ramped up bicycle infrastructure going in.

    This of course would cost a lot more, so not only would we be fighting the road diet unrest, but also the “not my tax $$” unrest, that although the bike advocacy groups had come up against, would be much more vehement given the larger price tag.

    But, I love the idea. I have loved the idea for a couple years now. Along with the benefits you’ve stated, it would also free up buses for more cross-town connectivity. And, the possibility of a Park and Ride program at the proposed new parking garage in Broad Ripple isn’t lost on me either.

    I want this.

  • I like this idea a lot, but wonder about just referencing temporary citizen unrest. The initial negativity may indeed be temporary, but the displacement of parking for residents and businesses would likely be more permanent.

    Some folk might opt to get by without a car given the new mass transit option available to them, but that probably wouldn’t be everyone, right?

    So how would you envision accommodating those parking needs given that the College Ave parking lanes right now are often packed chock-full and many of those businesses already are challenged for adequate parking.

    • I will be frank about this. I do not think that there is as big a problem with parking as there is with people unwilling to walk a few blocks to get where they are going. I understand that properly addressing the issue creates wasteful parking lots where land could be used for dwellings, park space or businesses.

  • The College Avenue right-of-way is 80′ wide. I’m not sure exactly what the minimum width would be for two light rail tracks, but I gotta think that the right-of-way could still accommodate a 10′ travel lane, and 8′ parking lane, and a 7′ sidewalk on each side, which would still leave 30′ for the light rail. Obviously, left turn lanes and station platforms would require the elimination of on-street parking near the major intersections, but overall I think on-street parking and light rail could both fit along typical sections of the line.

  • I am optimistic that this can happen within the next 10 years. I know that sounds aggressive, but it’s possible.
    I think the catalyst for this will be the current streetcar initiative to connect downtown with the ZOO. Once they start fund-raising (I believe they first want to get the city on board with street access, etc.), this will be a good indication to me if we can stop just daydreaming about the line to Broad Ripple. I think they will be able to raise quite a bit of private money for this, and at that point we can start expecting FTA to make some money available to us for additional lines.
    The big unknown is what will city officials do. Mayor already said he was not willing to pay for the operating expenses. Therefore, there would have to be some kind of endowment set up to cover a chunk of operating cost (since it is not likely to break even from fares alone). This is somewhat similar to the Cultural Trail (operating cost covered by a non-for-profit). Maybe they can get a deal where portion of the property tax on the new development along the line would go towards the streetcar fund (just brainstorming here, have no idea if this is feasible).
    Then the new parking deal presents another roadblock, since it would be costly for the city to displace any existing meters (which is likely once you add rail and stations). But let’s say that’s a minor roadblock compared to (1) getting city on board, (2) raising private money, (3) getting FTA grants, and (4) figuring out how to cover the operating expenses.

  • I imagine there is a “TIF” style of financing method available or should be simple to implement. Just like a TIF, the transit authority would capture the increase in value of development at stations or along the line and channel that money back into the project. Idk if they could use it for operating costs or not…….

  • Question for you all. Take the same approach, design etc and place it on Keystone Ave. Run it along the Monon near downtown – bump it over 38th street, near Orchard Ave – pop it out behind the Mainscape building – and run it up Keystone from Fall Creek to the burbs.


    • One of the early route examinations for the NE Corridor looked at a similar route. In the end, I think having the Nickel Plate right of way there already swayed them to go that route.

  • Curt,

    Any details or images on how the stations or stops worked with a center lane rail? I know in Minneapolis the stops were fairly expansive in the middle of the street DT, but crossing can always be an issue?

    • Ive seen some images of crossing where the sidewalk zig zags across the line to make it a little safer for people who might try to simply rush over the tracks. The stations in the middle seem very nice as well.

      Here are a couple pictures from Dan’s flickr page of stations:


  • I like the “TIF” style financing, but I think we could also learn a lesson from China. When they build a new transit line (i believe the story I read was about Shanghai), the government simultaneously builds dense housing/commercial space around the new transit stops, and then the added revenue from new development is considered to be part of the net project cash flow for the transit project.

    If we could get some large scale developments, a la the Uptown project at 50th and college, to commit to building dense developments CONTINGENT on being near a new transit stop, perhaps the city council will join the in our enthusiasm for the college ave. line? (Could we even possibly count funds from such projects as our “contribution” as a city, to be matched by TIGER funds or other federal funds?)

  • Why not stay on college all the way to Mass Av?

    • Yes! And continue s. on college to VA ave & Fountain Square also n. On college to Carmel Arts & Design District.

    • The density just west is much higher. It makes the line more feasible. and I may be wrong but I believe those two roads are one ways with more than enough capacity.

  • The transit line to be getting excited about making happen is from downtown to the airport. Rather than being focused on local QOL it has a focus on connecting two economic hubs and providing better service to our growing tourism industry. The city has invested (some huge number) dollars into a convention center, stadiums, skyways, and a beautiful airport. The cost of running a transit line to connect them seems reasonable to me in a service based economy. It also gives more incentive for companies to locate, rather than on the 465 loop and it would be a perfect location for a park and ride. This reduces the amount of parking required downtown and allows for more productive space. The Airport to Downtown route should be Indy’s first transit line. We just need people to get excited about it!

    • The general knowledge on the subject tells me that the line to airport would make the least economic sense. I hope it eventually happens, but it will probably require a significant public subsidy.

      • Oh, I agree, it will definitely require govt. subsidies, but with the population density Indy has, that is a given. It just seems like a line to BR would not provide nearly as many new economic opportunities as one to the airport. That is what the city will care most about. Cheap land and a new mass transit system will allow for a higher density coridor in an area will few will cry about structures being torn down, but building a route to BR goes though some beautiful historic residential areas that want to remain just that.

  • just keep it on College, it’s that simple

  • I was hoping this wouldn’t devolve into the traditional “it should go here” but since you are all reading here are some things to chew on.
    Going down College Ave south of 38th makes little sense. Sure it would be great and perhaps it would revive the corridor but transit is primarily for serving jobs. Activity centers next, and community redevelopment where possible. In that respect, following the jobs down Meridian (or close by along Capitol/Illinois) makes plenty of sense.
    As far as DT to the airport it seems like a waste for rapid transit to primarily service a group that doesn’t live here. Do it later or partner with a private group to pay for it. Build rail transit for the benefit of residents first and visitors later. We pay taxes and chose to live here so we should see the most benefit.
    Next time you take a trip, use the #8 or the Green Line. 🙂

    • You are exactly right about locating transit to serve businesses. That is when lines seem to be the most successful so capitol/ Illinois is an obvious choice over College.
      I completely disagree with the comment “a waste for rapid transit to primarily service a group that doesn’t live here” It makes perfect sense. We have built a focus in downtown on doing all we can to attract visitors to the city, and hopefully if we keep putting our best foot forward maybe we can convince more companies to put offices downtown. People want to live in places where their tax dollars are being spent.
      The corridor towards the airport has several options for development, there are many large businesses near the airport, the airport is in the beginning stages of reinventing itself as an aerotropolis (much more profitable in Asia, but still a great goal to work toward), and airport lines provide a unique opportunity to price gouge. It is easy for an airport line to charge generously to get to that last stop since the people using it are getting around having to get a taxi, parking, or car rental. I paid 8 euro to go from the next to last stop and on to the airport and was happy to do so.
      Your idea of servicing what you have now rather than what may bring more money in the future is just like the idea of widening a highway. It increases capacity, but provides no new opportunities.
      I feel there is no better place for Indy to build a transit line except between Indy’s finest facilities.

    • Visitors pay all sorts of taxes that help create the quality of life we enjoy in Indianapolis: taxes on airport tickets, hotel and rental car taxes.

      And we’ll increase the likelihood the attracting more and more visitors (at least via meetings and conventions) with a quality light rail light between the airport and downtown. We are rapidly becoming one of the few major convention destinations (at least in first tier cities or top of second tier cities) that does not have light rail. It is an amenity that factors into an association’s decision to host a meeting in our city.

  • Back on the topic of College Avenue in comparison to Portland’s Yellow Line, I think College is better suited for rail since my recollection is that it’s more densely developed and more walkable than the majority of the Yellow Line corridor which travels through some areas that are still very auto-oriented with few walkable destinations and little nearby housing. Bring it on!

  • I agree with Idyllic Indy

  • A rail line on college would cement into place the existing redlining that divides black and white neighborhoods.

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