BRT or Rail for the Green Line?

NE Corridor @ 71st Street (image credit: Curt Ailes)
NE Corridor @ 71st Street (image credit: Curt Ailes)

Polarization: A division into two opposites. One could not find a better manifestation of this definition than the case of the Green Line, the proposed rapid transit line between Indy’s NE side and downtown. One might conclude the division is between those who think we shouldn’t build this line at all and those who do (although, that would be a great guess). No. What I describe are those who think that if we do build it, the vehicle mode should be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT)

At the heart of this debate seems to be a disagreement over the associated costs and benefits of each mode. Boosters of the BRT idea seem to think that a drastic reduction in expenditures could be realized by building a two lane roadway for buses, instead of a single lane railway for some form of rail vehicle. Some even argue that less right of way would be taken up for the buses. Yet others still argue that a bus route can be changed to meet changing demand for rapid transit as time goes by.

Are these concerns valid? Is the BRT line cheaper? Would being able to move the line in later years prove to be an advantage over a more permanent mode such as rail? As it turns out, some of these concerns are valid.

LA Orange Line (image credit: Matt Johnson @ GGW)
LA Orange Line (image credit: Matt Johnson @ GGW)

According to figures obtained by Urban Indy, the BRT line IS cheaper to build when compared against the rail alternative. The hard values, as concluded by the MPO, come out to be $438 million for the rail project and $350 million for the BRT alternative. A detailed breakdown indicates however, that the differences aren’t where you might think they should be. For instance, a comparison of the actual operating way puts the BRT roadway at $117 million where the rail line is $87 million. Stations for the rail alternative are marginally more expensive at $26 million (vs $17M for BRT). The major differences in cost appear to be related to operating systems; the train operations come in at a considerably higher cost when compared to the buses. In addition, a new maintenance facility must be constructed to service the trains, whereas BRT buses could be maintained at existing IndyGo facilities. The last concern over right of way for BRT vs rail is also considered, with more land required to purchase to build the bus-way.

The remaining concerns however, are difficult to address. How is a value proposition generated if the conclusion is based on a possibility years down the road that demand could change? One opinion I have read suggests that perhaps in 20 years the heavy growth area in Indianapolis is on the west side (or south, etc…). In that case, how could a rail line shift to meet that demand when bus service could simply “move” to meet that demand? There is half truth to that scenario in that the buses could be redirected however, how to account for building another bus-way to the west side to match the same level of service to the northeast? Budget an additional $117 million 20 years from now for a new bus-way?

Cleveland BRT at Station (image credit: Graeme Sharpe)
Cleveland BRT at Station (image credit: Graeme Sharpe)

A significant draw to fixed guideway rapid transit is its ability to induce development in the neighborhoods surrounding the stations. There seems to be an argument brewing in the transit industry over which mode of transit has generated the most successful development. A recent report from the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) compared the differences between rail and BRT and their affect on TOD. In their report, 21 North American LRT & BRT systems were pitted against each other using a “BRT standard” to assess quality of service. Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s Healthline came out as a clear winner for return on investment ($114.5M of TOD investment per dollar of transit investment). Indeed, we have covered the success of Cleveland’s line many times here at Urban Indy and have promoted it’s design as a model for possible design of the Indy Connect Red Line or Blue Line.

However, comparisons to Cleveland’s BRT should not be drawn for the Green Line. A route more comparable is Los Angeles’ Orange Line; I covered this back in February & MPO planners have drawn this link as well. That makes sense in that both routes don’t necessarily connect large government or medical institutions but serve low to moderate density residential and job markets. In that regard, the Orange Line rated low in the moderate category of the ITDP report with a just $1.3M of TOD investment per dollar of transit investment; far lower than the Cleveland project.

Los Angeles Orange Line Vehicle (image credit: FTA)
Los Angeles Orange Line Vehicle (image credit: FTA)

This is not to say that if the Green Line were rail it would do any better. There are no comparable rail lines included in the ITDP report that the Green Line could even be compared to in terms of length and type of service that will be provided. The question of whether the Green Line, as a BRT mode, would succeed in drawing more TOD is still speculative. However, the MPO has assembled a number of TOD typologies surrounding possible stations along the corridor so whether the mode chosen is rail or BRT, a supportive land use strategy is waiting to be put to good use to support wherever the stations are platted. That in itself should be celebrated and counted on as a way of insuring that whichever mode is chosen will succeed as more than simply another mode of transporting people up and down the line.

In the end, the regional transportation council will have a lot of factors to consider when selecting the final mode of operation for this line. If cost is the last criteria, all other factors being equal, it becomes difficult to argue that rail is a superior option to BRT along this corridor. Further study will make this decision easier in the coming months.

Comments 24

  • Stations for the rail alternative are marginally more expensive at $26 million (vs $17M for BRT).

    Not sure how you’re using marginally here. A 50% increase in cost per station is a pretty hefty amount.

  • Do we know of examples where a single track commuter line has been a significant inducement to better development than would have occurred without it? If the debate is between a two lane BRT vs a single track rail line (commuter rail), I’ll take the BRT. At least it will have much better opportunities to run both directions all throughout the day. I have to believe that one set of rails with some sidings would really be limiting to scheduling and frequency.

  • aside from the substantial difference in price, and the ability to modify the route with a bus,including diverting busses to other areas that might actually USE the units, there are several other factors: building a BRT should be much quicker, so actual costs (which ALWAYS exceed the estimates in US projects) will be closer to estimates,and the fact that self driving cars will undoubtedly be in widespread service BEFORE a rail line could be constructed. Fishers – Noblesville will probably buy such cars before poorer areas.

  • Actually, one very successful example of a single-track rail line is Utah’s FrontRunner. This is a commuter rail line that runs north to south from Ogden through Salt Lake City down to Provo. Similar to our HHPA, Utah owned much of this railroad from the 1800s. Six miles of it is shared with a Union Pacific railroad segment. As what is proposed for the Green line LRT, FrontRunner is single-tracked with double tracks at stations and at random points along the route. I was skeptical about this idea too when I heard about it at the Green Line meeting I went to in August. Once I read about how well it was working in central Utah, I thought ‘why not central Indiana?’ The main reasoning behind light rail as opposed to BRT for the green line is because there is more investor incentive with rail transit because it is something that is permanent and not likely to be moved. Given, BRT stations are less likely to be moved than regular bus stops, there is still that ‘what if’ factor that investors consider when it comes to transit oriented development. Also, another factor to consider is that if the transit committee decides to go with BRT, as stated in the article, they will have to acquire more land. This leaves less space for any type of transit oriented development or less space for a park and ride. I understand that cheaper may seem more appealing, but this is an investment for the future. Cities like Salt Lake City and Charlotte have already made that investment and they don’t have as high of a population density as we do. Other cities are catching on in their own little way with streetcar projects like Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Detroit. Having at least one LRT line out of 5 rapid transit lines will provide greater appeal, especially in areas where the stops have more development potential like 25th, 38th, and 46th streets.


  • Perfect example is Austin’s LRT Line

    • Both the Austin and Salt Lake City lines mentioned in these links are commuter rail with low service frequencies. Austin’s line reportedly carries an average of 2,800 riders per day. For the investment contemplated, the Green Line needs to be a full service transit line with frequent service in both directions all throughout the day. It appears that can easily be achieved with BRT, but not likely with a single track train line. Unless they propose to build an actual dual track LRT initially, which they are not, I believe that the BRT would provide a much greater benefit.

      • I agree with Idyllic. Two-lane BRT for Green Line, along with rail-style preference at major streets & roads (i.e. crossing gates and signals).

  • Can the frequency issue of the single track line be addressed by adding siding? For example, cut the frequency in half by adding a siding near the midpoint of the route. I recall space near the tracks just east of the State Fairgrounds.

    • I’m going to guess it would not. The benefit of rail travel over “on the road” options such as buses is that they wouldn’t get stuck in traffic. If they have to wait 5 minutes 2-3 times per trip, that really negates quite a bit of the benefit. Even if it is minimal disruption, it would feel like a hassle for those who potentially might ride this.

      I would prefer a two way route regardless of if it is rail or BRT. Personally, I think given the chintziness of Hoosiers, BRT is going to win out, regardless of the increase stability brought by rail TOD.

      • “chintziness” is a great way to describe the general attitude about investing in the Indy area. It’s something that has bugged me from time to time – that very few people tend to take the long view when it comes to investment. To many locals, cheap right now is what matters, even if they must spend more money in the long run. This is a generalization of course.

        • I’ve tried to make it a point in my own life to make a distinction between “cost” and “price”, something Indy seems to be terrible at. Something might have a large price (the cost of a rapid transit line) but part of that price is offset by the benefits associated with it (access to jobs, increased tax base). In some cases, the cost can be fully offset, but it is so hard for people to take that view.

  • No bus, anywhere, not even with Sandra Bullock driving, is “rapid.”

    I’ve seen dedicated busways. Horrible idea.

  • It comes down to two things.

    First – How quickly does it accomplish the main objective of moving from the suburbs to downtown? If that time isn’t 30 minutes or less you can forget about convincing Hamilton County residents to ever get on a bus or train. I commute from Fishers to downtown every day and even in a perfect storm of traffic it takes less than 50 minutes from my garage to my parking spot in Indy. Most days the commute hovers between 35-40 minutes each way.

    Second – How convenient will this be? This applies to both getting to the transit stations from the sprawling suburbia and scheduling of routes. It will be hard to convince commuters to use this system unless it represents a significant time saving. Most, if not all, of the commuters will still need to drive a personal vehicle from their sprawl communities to the transit location, park, wait for and board the transit, ride to downtown, then walk to their final location. Unless that total procedure is close to or less of a time sink than simply driving the freeway into the city I can’t see a mass adoption by Hamilton County. Until we can find a convenient way of accomplishing all of that you’re not going to get mass adoption of transit lines from the north side. Without mass adoption you’re not going to see sustainable revenue streams.

    • Agreed.

      Three words for you: Rail To Trail. Turn this baby into Monon part duex, and save a ton of money. It passes through some good residential areas and would be a valuable trail for recreation, exercise, and bike commuting. Sure you’d give up a transit line, but I just don’t see the point of trying to entice suburban commuters out of their cars. If they’re living in a suburb, they’ve probably already chosen and committed to the auto.

    • I like your comments Billy and I think there is a chicken/egg problem going on here. Commuting by car from as far out as Noblesville is really pretty easy. Something like 40 minutes on a good day and 60 on a bad. Heck, it’s 30 minutes on a weekend. Compare that to any large city like Chicago, London, or wherever and you find that commutes from a similar distance would be untenable – probably multiple hours each way.

      We’ll take Chicago as an example: Many people don’t drive to the Loop from Naperville because the Metra gets there in half the time. And why is that? Chicago hasn’t continually upgraded their freeway system, but focused more on other modes of transportation. If Chicago focused solely on the car, the Eisenhower through Oak Park (on the way from the Loop to Naperville) would likely be 5-7 lanes wide in each direction and be empty except for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening when it would be a bumper to bumper parking lot. Instead it is 3 lanes in each direction and probably has been since it was built.

      Contrast that with Indy where the stretch of 70 between Emerson and Shadeland is 4 lanes in one direction and 5 lanes in the other direction. And those lanes are pretty desolate most of the day (less so now that all the truck traffic is rolling back through the split, ugh).

      And the ease of commuting from up there is about to get even easier considering there is supposed to be a major renovation of the 69/465 interchange and they are proposing a massive project that Curt reported on here to make 37 into Noblesville a freeway with roundabout bridges like Carmel has.

      Until Indy decides to shift their priorities to a world-class mindset, we will continue to be a second rate city. I just shook my head almost the entire weekend as I was out in San Diego and the city is so bike/ped friendly (stop signs litter downtown) and their trolley system is about the easiest thing in the world to use.

      The funny thing is, if Indy would focus on 1) pedestrians, 2) bikes, 3) transit, and 4) motor vehicles – in that order, any complaints about congestion would essentially go away as more people would move toward 1-3 and those still choosing 4 would have to do battle with less people.

  • Considering the comments I’ve read here and on other articles on the matter, it appears the best option for this mass transit plan is to exclude Hamilton County altogether and just have a single stop just passed the County line for the green line as what is proposed with the red line and Johnson County. Trying to get all of Hamilton County on board may be futile at this point. The most potential for growth and economic development is in Marion County anyway. Build up the system in Marion County first, continue with the Fishers and Carmel express bus and let Hamilton County conduct their own feasibility study later on in the future. With that, it still appears more TOD will occur along a rail line instead of BRT. Keep in mind, “along the rail line” typically means area within 1/4 mile of the line.

  • Can we just give up on this whole mass transit to the suburbs and just establish a commuter rail network, as seen here

    • Well I asked a similar question on the Indy Connect website.

      Me: According to the Indiana Railway 2012 map, there are 10 railroads that branch out from Union Station to the adjacent counties mentioned in the mass transit plan. Of those 10, 6 are CSX operated lines. Are there any studies currently assessing the feasibility of contracting these lines out with CSX and getting commuter rails in place sooner than 2035? With 6 CSX lines, and 4 lines owned by the state of Indiana, why not start off by developing a commuter rail system and building the current bus system up as you suggested? With increased bus service, BRT, and having multiple stops along those lines mentioned within Marion County, we could possibly forgo the idea of light rail for right now and put it in the distant future if the population were to outgrow the aforementioned concepts.

      IndyConnect’s Response: We have and continue to look at the existing rail lines across the region. In fact, the one that is currently owned by the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority that runs from Noblesville to Downtown is the “Green Line” and the easiest rail line to gain access to since it is locally owned and specifically being preserved for mass transit purposes. However, while rail lines that are currently being used for freight operations sound like an easy solution – they are actually one of the most difficult. There are significant challenges with moving people and freight in the same corridor. Several other cities have investigated the same opportunities and found the cost for operating within freight right-of-way to be as much as, if not more than, building their own lines. We continue to look at these opportunities, but they are bigger challenges than they might seem.

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