What if Indy Connect never happens?

Regional stakeholders continue to push for action at the state level allowing local power to create funding options for transit. I know this because I am a part of the transit coalition debating this issue. However, a recent conversation brought to light an interesting notion.

What could the city of Indianapolis do on its own to improve and expand transit, devoid of the power to participate in a regional transit system?

First, defining exactly what a “regional” system is comprised of is required. A regional system is one which has the authority to operate and govern across multiple counties. Currently devoid of body with the power to operate and construct a transit system, levy taxes, pay suppliers, etc.  regional transit is a non-starter.  While Indianpolis has seen it’s share of regional operations in the form of IndyGo’s operating of the commuter routes from Carmel, Fishers and Greenwood to downtown, they come with a measure of negotiation between local communities. Governance and a sufficient level of service to consider the system a regional one however, are not possible with the current conditions.

Final Central Indiana Regional Transit Proposal (image credit: CITTF)
Final Central Indiana Regional Transit Proposal (image credit: CITTF)

For Indianapolis, that means IndyGo is the model for local transit; they have the authority to operate in the city and county of Indianapolis but no further without negotiating on per route basis with other towns and cities. However, cities and towns themselves have the power to spend capital on many different projects given enough political muscle to push it through. All one needs to do is look at the large number of taxpayer backed projects such as CityWay, the pending Block 400 parking garage, and any number of other multimillion dollar projects. Technically, if city officials wanted it bad enough, they COULD fund the construction of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT) type of infrastructure project. It could also defer money away from other city funded projects to fund the operations of these dreamed of projects.

However, and as we painfully experience every year, the city kicks the can on this issue. This is understandable in recent years with the momentum being generated for a regional system advocated by Indy Connect and the city looking to the future. However, at some point if things do not change at the state level allowing a regional transit authority, the city needs to take up the banner on improving local transit.

IndyGo bus on Indiana Ave (image credit: Curt Ailes)
IndyGo bus on Indiana Ave (image credit: Curt Ailes)

IndyGo is annually underfunded and often turning it’s pockets out to find spare change to keep the existing barebones system running. How long they can keep this up without major service cuts is unknown. Kevin reviewed the 2010 Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA) some time ago which examined how the system could be changed to function more efficiently with the current routes, but it would be painful for lots of people who depend on the bus system to get around. IndyGo spends a lot of it’s federally supplied capital funding on upkeep of it’s aging fleet of buses which keeps it from offering more frequent service on existing routes as well as adding new routes. The state of the current bus fleet is so bad, that IndyGo is turning to purchasing used buses from other cities because they are in a better state of repair than many of our current buses.

I suppose what it boils down to in the end, is what would local politicians find worth putting on the fund chopping block to shift towards providing long term funding stability for IndyGo as well as expansion of the current system?

Comments 34

  • let’s hope it doesn’t come to never. Citizens need to realize that transportation is a priority too and a bigger one that class basketball or non-smoking bars.

  • If it never happens, it means that taxpayers won’t have wasted money on rail systems that benefit white people who moved out of the county to get away from black people. It’s a win-win.

    • You know black people would ride the rail as well, don’t you?

      • My point is that the light rail proposal extends to the border of Fishers/Noblesville, an area that is overwhelmingly white, but more importantly, not in economic distress.

        The tax money required to subsidize light rail to the burbs, could be put to use right now, for better bus service inside 465.

        I regret the tone of the hyperbole, it was meant to demonstrate the emphasis placed on light rail by local activists and the Star, compared to the silence about our dismal bus system.

    • These comments are borderline. Spite is not often a valid argument. People move to the suburbs for a number of reasons. The last census showed that minorities are starting to join whites in the suburbs.

      • Didn’t mean to make it a borderline comment…. I just thought that was just a dumb thought process

      • and empty nesters and 20 somethings are moving to the central city. Its reverse concentric zone theory. In 20 years we will be like most eurpoean cities: Elites and wealthy in the central core where the majority of jobs, healthcare, entertainment and infrastracture is, while new immigrants and under-income are living in the outskirts of the city in the 80’s vinyle village paying exorbinant rent becasue they cent get into the central city. Its already happening if you know where to look.

  • The capital investment doesn’t have come just from the local sources. Look at Cincinnati. They used TIGER funds quite effectively to jump start their streetcar system. I am not a huge fan of TIFs (since they are often used as slush funds for private benefit), but in this case, TIFs could cover future operating cost (especially, since the selling point of the streetcar system is its potential to generate new development along the rail lines).

  • if Indy Connect doesn’t happen–and given the present political and cultural reality in Indiana i’m not at all personally optimistic that it will–then nothing will happen. the status quo will carry on. IndyGo will creak along, barely serving the most economically desperate and environmentally minded while the vast majority of Indy’s citizens continue to drive to work, or a half mile down to the store, in their single passenger cars. I have some hope that cycling as a form of transportation will continue increasing, but that’s about it. Indianapolis, and Indiana in general, is just too content to be mediocre.

    • Curt retweeted this (as did I) the other day:
      “After living in Indianapolis for nearly 18 years, I have come to the conclusion that Indy would be a great city if it wasn’t in Indiana.”

    • “Indianapolis, and Indiana in general, is just too content to be mediocre.”

      Wrong on many levels. A more proper statement would be citizens of Indianapolis, and Indiana in general, are just too content with being frugal with the fruits of their labor. There is only so much taxation that people will take, and we clearly saw those limits when property taxes on $400,000 in Meridian-Kessler and Butler-Tarkington homes reached $11,000 PER YEAR.

      I’m not sure how much people are willing to pay for mass transit. It has to be reasonable, and making a blanket statement equating taxpayers wanting smart, reasonable spending and taxation as being “mediocre” will only divide those on various sides of the issues. Indy Connect tried hard to push their plan as a bus heavy plan. However, half (and likely over half given cost over runs of large scale construction projects) of the funding was for one specific transit plan: A silly fixed rail line from Fishers/Noblesville to downtown Indy. I definitely wouldn’t have helped all those original taxpayers targeted in Hancock, Shelby, Johnson, Morgan, Hendricks, and Boone counties. So the plan was scaled back, but the cost for that one line would still be the same, and fewer taxpayers would be forced to pay even higher taxes to fund the plan.

      Instead of calling us “mediocre,” why not ask “What is it that you are willing to pay in taxes? What is it that you want from the system?” That would be a good start in trying to expand transit in the area.

      • JT: Two questions for you: What is it that you are willing to pay in taxes? What is it that you want from the system?

        • I would like to see an expanded bus service, with the focus on 1/2 miles stops (basically stopping at major intersections, and at a halfway point between those intersections). This will limit the number of stops just so people don’t have to walk x number of additional yards.
          I would also like to see express bus service from the various suburban areas that use the existing highway interstate system. Partner with existing businesses to expand parking lots at suburban exit ramps, or use existing lots if there is a nearby Walmart/Lowes/etc.. There would be added buses during the rush hour.
          There would be no rail transit. There is not enough density anywhere that would justify the cost it would take to build the rail. Unfortunately, fixed, non-flexible rail is the holy grail to the pro-mass transit types. The money is a lure for some, the coolness for others. Indy grew out, not up, so the cost of rail makes no sense to me.
          I’d be willing to pay $50/month, give or take, so long as monthly user charges are in line with what one sees in other cities.

      • This is about making the right investment. I don’t think we are anymore frugal than the rest of the country. That’s like saying that we have one of the lowest percentage of college graduates (we rank 42nd) in the country, because we are frugal and don’t want to spend on education. The fact that we don’t want to make this investment is a combination of many things, but here are three big ones: low income (we rank 41st, we earn 85% of what workers in the rest of the country earn), less educated public (as mentioned above), and state administration’s decision that “low tax is cure for all” (I guess it worked out so well for low-tax Mississippi that we decided to copy their model).

      • 1) i stand by my statement.
        2) you get what you pay for: low cost of living = low quality of life.
        2) i would believe people who make clames about being “frugal” with our investments if we had this same level of debate about every road expansion and new highway. Is Indiana being “frugal” when it spends billions of dollars on a new interstate highway nobody wanted? So called “fiscal hawks” are quick to attack transit projects for being too expensive and serving too few people for the money but never seem to make a peep when 2, 5 or 10 times as much money is needed for a massive new road.

  • The ongoing Brain Drain (i.e future tax base) that the legislature is oblivious about will accelerate at a faster pace.

  • What if Indy Connect never happens?

    Guess what, Indy Connect is going absolutely nowhere.

    Decades of study, many plans, yet no true will power to make it happen.

    Governor Mitch Daniels has absolutely no interest in anything other than building more roads and bridges. His “Indiana Department of Roads” doesn’t even apply for most federal public transit grants. Certainly not anything to do with rail.

    Mitch’s buddy Mark Miles at the Central Indiana Partnership has jumped into this with two feet, and sabotaged by design or incompetence any true efforts to build an effective public transportation system.

    Mark’s buddy Ron Gifford who now claims to be Indy Connects advocate, is so irrelevant NO ONE listens to him.

    Mayor Ballard is good natured about doing something, but his brain trust is so shallow and competence so lacking that getting a good plan implemented has no chance.

    Heck, these guys won’t even dare to utter the words “gas tax” and “public transportation” in the same sentence out of fear of bursting into flames;)

  • there are many things that could be done within our budget, but many “planners” and politicians want the all or nothing approach. The USDOT TIGER programs have been quick and cheap in other areas, but no one is interested here. An example (that I have promoted numerous times) is a short, cheap expansion of the people mover from IU-Methodist to extend to IVTC and slightly beyond. Too many details for here but it links multiple public employers, is quick and cheap, and surely we have some black folks in Center Township so this is NOT just a Carmel railfan’s special. Equipping IndyGo w/ a GPS system would be another cheap improvement that doesn’t get done.

    • The people mover is inefficient, lacks frequency, and is affected by adverse weather conditions. Frankly, if they tore it down and replaced it with a modern streetcar system on the same right of way, it would become much more user friendly and still provide the service the IU Health relies upon to move it’s employees back and forth between the medical centers. It is NOT cheap to expand. Elevated guideway transit is THE MOST EXPENSIVE transit in terms of capital investment required.

      • I would strongly disagree with that, Curt. It does not require acquiring more right of way, the system is fully functional, we could expand to IVTC almost instantly, providing all the multi-school benefits, we could utilize the current design, equipment, training, etc. And, for those that wish to encourage mass transit, it would provide a quick, shovel ready platform that could demonstrate the advantages of a later system. I would agree that it would not be the optimal choice for the large, complex, expensive “rocket ship to the elite parts of NOblesville” that some people hope to sell. A modern trolley would have weather problems, right of way problems, take MUCH longer to build, and would probably disappoint. I am talking a quick, cheap, shovel ready project that provides transit AND links a university quarter today. In other words, it can be there and running even if Indy Connect never happens.

        • It is a fact that the current system is prone to shutdowns during high wind and icy conditions. Your comments about right of way are correct however, modern trollies do not have issues with ice/wind. Look at Minneapolis, Denver and such which operate in adverse weather often without issue. I find that to be a highly superior technology which also does not require a ladder truck to show up when the train itself gets stalled which has happened multiple times here.

    • The People Mover is currently 1.5 miles. Extending it to Ivy Tech would be just shy of that and doesn’t really provide any operational synergy with the medical personnel transportation goal of the People Mover. A more realistic extension of the People Mover would send it west from the other end at IU/Riley to New Wishard and the VA. That actually appears in the recent IUPUI/IU Health Master Plan and has a possibility of happening.

      • Chris, extending it would NOT be to move medical personnel as a primary goal. The short extension would help the near north side, of course, but would integrate IVTC and other universities that might enter the area with the IUPUI campus. Since IVTC are gradually assuming much IUPUI undergraduate work at a lower per credit cost (and more success w/minority and non traditional learners) this linkage to the IU job market and library system would be good. If you look in other cities it is not unknown to have several schools nearby in a “university quarter”. There would certainly be room in the neighborhood for Indiana Wesleyan, a WGU on site office, and all the other minor schools to cluster offices nearby. The schools might not like the competition, but the increased useage of libraries, etc. would very nice. A link to the VA, etc. would also be nice, as you mentioned, and add consumers to the educational and job market.

        • (a) The People Mover is a private entity operated by IU Health, so the ONLY goal is moving people between hospitals.

          (b) An extension would be neither small, cheap, nor quick to construct. Again, the extension you’re proposing is essentially the same distance as the original line, which was built in 2001-03 for $43M. Today, a similar line would probably cost on the order of $50-60M and take two more years to build.

          (c) Who would pay for this? Certainly not IU Health, which would see no benefit from this extension. In fact, because the existing system is a point-to-point and can only accommodate 2 trains, an extension to Ivy Tech would actually deteriorate the already weak service of the line. I don’t see who would pay to do this.

  • Nothing will happen so long as those of us who demand reasonable taxation and reasonable spending are looked upon as mediocre Neanderthals who some will say “just don’t get it.” If Indy residents, especially the urban living ones, wanted expanded transit, then Indy could just hike their local resident income tax by 10% and fund the system. The real questions are how much would the Indy only bus portion of Indy Connect costs? How much in additional income taxes would Indy need to fund this, offset by end user fees?

    Figure that out, then pass the tax (if possible) and fund the system. If it works well, taxes aren’t too high, I promise you Carmel, Fishers, and Greenwood would likely start similar systems, either as part of the Indy system, or as connecting stand alone systems using the same stops.

    • Can the COIT actually be raised? I thought COIT funds can be divided up by the local legislative body, but any raises in COIT have to first go through the state legislature, which then will permit the local legislature to vote on a COIT increase.

      I think sales tax increases can happen independent of any other authority.

  • The City/Indygo could do the Marion County part of the Indy Connect plan right now. All it would take would be a countywide referendum to approve the property tax increase (above the caps) needed to do so. Price it out and put the actual, per property-owner cost on the ballot in November- that is all that is needed. The law is already on the books. It is the same law that requires school corporations and other political subdivisions to pass a referendum to do big capital improvements projects. No matter how beneficial the plan might be – no matter how bad Mayor Ballard says it is “his” plan, that won’t happen. Mayor Ballard is not brave enough to raise property taxes (ever) or other taxes without the political cover provided by a “regional solution” and the blessing of the Republican controlled General Assembly. Unfortunately we have seen the City’s lack of commitment to transit (aside from a campaign talking point) by the City’s lack of guts, effort, and deal-making to get anything passed by the GA. The solution is there. It is straightforward. If the system is worth it (which in my opinion it is), voters can decide to pay for it. They can do so right now. Debate over a property, income, or sales tax increase is a distracting political game. Citizens have to decide whether to pay $X billion for a better transit system- which tax to raise is beside the point. Mayor Ballard has a lot of great things policy-wise going for him. But he does not have political courage. This transit issue is Exhibit A.

  • Indianapolis has a Republican Mayor, the Republican Speaker of the House or likely Minority Leader represents Indianapolis, and a Republican Governor. You would think in this situation, it’d be easy to get done or at least underway.

    But Indy Connect, in the last legislative session, was opposed by both parties and didn’t have a single Indianapolis-based sponsor or co-sponsor of the legislation.

    Ballard himself doesn’t seem all that respected in the legislature, regardless of if the Dems or Rs are in control. He’s had trouble getting some initiatives through, and most of them have been rushed through as amendments to omnibus budget bills at the last minute.

    I think Indy Connect, or transit in general, would benefit from Keep It Simple, Stupid. Yes, I know, Indy Connect is a long term plan and the transit stuff of lite rail or whatever is only a fraction and yada yada yada, but that gobbles up all the attention and all the protests and what-not.

    So laser focus on one goal, and focus on that.

    I think a Marion County specific plan, emphasis on the bus, would have a good chance of passing with bipartisan support if the people lobbying for it were halfway competent. Include some tax provisions that give the donut counties the ability to opt into the system via tax increases if they like the success of it. Then build on that success if and/or when more extensive transit issues are proposed.

    • I 100% agree with this message. Ballard has zero weight (pun intended) in the statehouse, and is generally considered a fluke mayor. But alas, he is the mayor. This is a state that just threw Dick Lugar out on his can by TWENTY PERCENT for an ultra conservative – Te Party guy with no real track record. sign o the times I suppose.
      I can tell you upgrading the bus system is about the only thing you guys have a chance of getting done. That and redoing the dangerous bike lanes.
      Those drawings look nice but with defecits and failing education systems and crumbling roads – you are way down on the dance card.

  • During the most recent p…ing match of the State Legislature, I wondered why the fate of a proposal that will most definitely benefit Indy should be determined by a block of rural state representatives. Indy and Carmel should go it alone initially. The success of light rail/commuter rail in the metro area will foster the growth of public transportation in other urban regions of the state.

    • If it wasn’t for a specific rural legislature, the proposal wouldn’t have even existed. The Indy Connect bill didn’t have a single Indianapolis based sponsor or co-sponsor.

  • I can only chuckle that you think this is still a ‘what if’ situation. It’s not going to happen. We live in a low-density city that doesn’t have any [real] traffic problems. The current public transit system sucks and has a horrible reputation. (It doesn’t matter why.) There is no solution to make the bus system faster or more convenient than driving my car to work. I appreciate the enthusiasm for public transit on this site, and I wish there were more people like us who believe it’s an important part of a city, but there aren’t remotely enough. Any referendum would get crushed, especially if it included other counties.

    The only hope for a world class transit system in Indianapolis is ridiculously expensive gas. If and when that happens, Indy should forget about the donut counties and build an exceptional system in Marion County that will leave people no choice but to move back. Without higher density, it’s destined to be mediocre or a money pit.

  • Here’s some low-hanging fruit to consider: 1) pass complete streets ordinance – this would oblige the City to review any paving/development project w/ multiple road users in mind and could immediately benefit all kinds of transit users – including bicyclists and pedestrians..With Council poised to pass Complete Streets ordinance with Mayor Ballard’s support, DMD & DPW will become empowered to not only plan for more transit but implement the plans. 2) Implement J. England’s idea of a GPS system on buses; 3) When new TIF districts are adopted, include language that requires any project/infrastructure improvement using TIF funds to include transit enhancements (bench, shelter, bike parking, signage etc.); 4) work with neighborhood groups to identify needed transit improvements and seek community block grants to implement improvements (for example, Butler U is convening a meeting of Midtown transit advocates to look at a Midtown circulator – I’m sure there are similar needs throughout the metro area); 5) Work w/ various administrative boards – Board of Zoning Appeals/Metropolitan Development Commission – and Dept. of Metropolitan Development, to craft policies that make transit improvements a condition of granting a variance for a property on a bus/transit line (Bloomington’s doing this successfully.) These are all administrative approaches that can start tomorrow. Naturally, this doesn’t address long-term funding but they are short-term projects that can immediately make Indy more transit-friendly.

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