by Thomas P. Healy
The year 2019 marked the beginning of the most significant investment in public transportation in the city’s history. With the launch of the Red Line bus rapid transit (BRT) service, improved frequency and hours of service along regular bus routes, and the hiring of a new CEO, IndyGo served notice that it was accepting the monumental challenge of upgrading a transit system that had seen decades of disinvestment.
After a national search, veteran transit executive Inez Evans was selected in July to replace CEO Mike Terry, who announced his retirement in January 2019 after 15 years of service. In an interview after her selection, Evans acknowledged Terry’s efforts: “Those are some big shoes to fill but we’re going to change the style of the shoes and move forward.”
To get a sense of just how big those shoes were, some review is necessary. Working together with the IndyGo staff and board, the business community, and elected and appointed officials, Terry had navigated tight budgets and labyrinthine legislative obstacles to bring IndyGo into the 21st century. He secured federal funding for the Julia M. Carson Downtown Transit Center, and a Small Starts Grant for the Red Line from the Federal Transit Administration. He and his team worked tirelessly at public engagement to roll out the Marion County Transit Plan. They gained approval from the General Assembly for a referendum to let voters decide if they would support a tax increase necessary to implement the plan, including transition to an all-electric bus fleet by 2035.
While support from voters and the City-County Council (which stipulated that no funds from the referendum tax could be used on the Red Line) was one indicator of popular support, the federal government nearly upended the project by shutting down operations for 35 days from Dec. 22, 2018, until January 25, 2019. That shutdown occurred at a critical time during Red Line construction. The subsequent six-month delay in receiving federal funds that Congress had approved for IndyGo back in 2017 resulted in further uncertainties.
To make up for those delays, IndyGo announced in February that it would accelerate construction by four months. As anyone who has undertaken even a modest home remodeling project can attest, pushing for a tighter schedule can lead to unintended consequences. So while the Red Line met the target date and became operational on Labor Day weekend, there were some bumps in the road.
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Real-time arrival and departure marquees on platforms malfunctioned and were eventually taken off-line. Implementation of MyKey, a new account-based ticketing system including a custom mobile app, was delayed due to technical issues, so a temporary substitute point-of-sale ticketing system was installed on platforms. “We are choosing to hold the launch of the MyKey fare system until we are confident that all components of the system are fully functional for our riders,” said Bryan Luellen, IndyGo’s vice president of public affairs.
Working out consistent frequency (called on-time performance in the transit industry) proved to be more difficult than originally estimated. To compensate, IndyGo implemented schedule adjustments and additional layover time at both ends of the Red Line. As it turns out, dedicated lanes are essential for putting the “rapid” in bus rapid transit. Once Red Line buses mix with vehicular traffic along 38th street or south of the transit center, they lose competitive advantage. In the ramp-up to the Red Line, IndyGo had touted “traffic signal prioritization,” a feature that could allow bus operators to trigger traffic signals to halt cars and allow buses to breeze through intersections. But GPS issues and concerns from City officials about motor vehicle congestion at intersections have stymied its implementation.
One of the biggest headaches for IndyGo was motorists. They routinely used the bus lane as a private turn lane, crashed into platforms, or drove over the center curb, knocking loose the rubber median that IndyGo says vendors improperly installed. IndyGo has no control over enforcement, and ticketing violators has not been an IMPD priority.
Undaunted by the challenges, riders flocked to IndyGo. In September, 246,369 riders boarded the Red Line and total system ridership was up 30% over September 2018. To be sure, free fares helped boost Red Line numbers, as many riders were keen to “try before you buy” and figure out how transit service could fit their needs. It will be interesting to see ridership numbers now that fares are being charged.
In selecting Evans as CEO, the IndyGo board was betting on her experience with larger public transit systems. As chief operating officer for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, she was responsible for 1,862 employees and nearly 700 vehicles, as well as launching a BRT service. By comparison, IndyGo has 700 employees and 168 vehicles. “Certainly her experience with larger public systems and with paratransit in the private sector made her the top candidate,” said IndyGo board vice-chair Mark Fisher. “The board very much view transit as a critical component of a broader mobility system to build economic and workforce mobility, and it was refreshing to hear her views and experience in California and throughout the country on this.”
In an interview prior to her arrival, Evans said, “I was interested that the strategic plan and vision for IndyGo didn’t focus on transit, but on the movement of people. That’s key for the city and for mobility as a whole in this nation. We have to think of mobility as a service.” Reminded of IndyGo’s past disinvestment, she replied, “I don’t shy away from challenge, I see it as an opportunity.” Since her arrival, Evans has had plenty of opportunity to address a steady stream of challenges by initiating a number of service improvements.
Beginning in October, Red Line riders traveling north to 96th or south to Greenwood no longer needed to transfer to a local route bus. For Midtown riders, every other bus continues north of 66th street to 96th street along College Avenue. This route conforms with the planned Phase 2 extension of BRT service north to Nora and the county line.
After observing large swaths of the center curb that were loosened or removed, IndyGo worked with vendors to design and install a concrete median in the Red Line section north of 38th Street where the problem was acute. “IndyGo is committed to providing reliable and frequent transportation for our current and future riders while holding our vendors accountable during the process,” Evans said in a statement. “The Red Line is the first of this caliber of service for the agency and across the nation. We are continuing to learn and update in order to provide the best service to our community.” She added that IndyGo is negotiating cost-sharing for median improvements with its vendor.
Knowing that colder temperatures affect battery range, IndyGo and bus vendor BYD established temporary chargers along the Red Line route paid for by BYD. As announced in June, BYD will cover the costs to install permanent inductive charging stations on both ends of the Red Line.
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IndyGo has already acquired a parcel from IPL at 91st Street and Evergreen Avenue in Nora. Installation of the charging station there is expected to occur in early 2020.
While the MyKey fare system is not fully functional, the tap technology for free fare riders currently works for the student pilot program and will be extended to the Veteran’s Pass program. Since current IndyGo Veteran’s passes expire at the end of 2019, IndyGo requires veterans to obtain a new MyKey card by visiting the transit center. There is no cost for existing pass holders. A new pass costs $5. Veterans will continue to ride all IndyGo fixed and rapid bus routes for free on the MyKey fare system. Starting in January 2020, veterans will need to be able to tap a MyKey card in order to board a Red Line or local bus.
In December, the IndyGo board demonstrated its commitment to battery electric buses by approving the purchase of five additional 60-foot BRT buses from vendor BYD. Since IndyGo will end the year under budget, the board approved moving $7 million from operations to capital spending to cover the purchase. IndyGo’s competitive procurement process for BRT vehicles resulted in the selection of BYD as the vendor. IndyGo has an option for purchasing up to 75 buses. While 30 of its original order of 31 vehicles are in operation, additional buses are needed to accommodate increasing ridership and to provide continuous service during maintenance of existing rolling stock. The purchase authorization for the five additional vehicles expected to be delivered in 2020 will not exceed $6.5 million in cost.
Another example of IndyGo’s commitment to expanding mobility options was the allocation for up to $300,000 to two pilot projects identified by the Ford City:One Challenge. IndyGo will help the Martin Luther King Center develop and pilot a neighborhood-based micro-transit service utilizing wheelchair accessible and family-friendly vehicles to connect Midtown residents to jobs, schools, health care, and first/last mile connections to fixed transit routes. The MLK Center will receive four vehicles along with $100,000 for maintenance.
In addition, IndyGo will provide $58,000 to Briometrix for its “City on Wheels” proposal to digitally map and assess the health and integrity of 61 miles of sidewalk infrastructure along the Red Line route. The pilot will employ local residents who use wheelchairs, and these findings will be used in the development of pedestrian infrastructure along the Purple and Blue Lines. IndyGo is partnering with the Central Indiana Community Foundation to administer the funds.
Capping off a busy year, IndyGo was recognized December 19 by New York City-based transit advocacy group TransitCenter at its inaugural year-end awards program, “The Frequencies.”
IndyGo was awarded a “Best Service Improvement” award for the agency’s attention to its entire network. Bryan Luellen, who received the award on behalf of IndyGo, said national recognition by transportation professionals is a helpful reminder for Indianapolis. “With the support of our community, collectively we’ve made a significant leap towards a more equitable and accessible city. The professionals at IndyGo are working hard to implement best practices for high-quality transit service.”
In a statement, IndyGo CEO Inez Evans made it clear that while the Red Line was a very visible step in a years-long effort to improve the city’s transit system, she and her team are ready to move forward. “In 2020, IndyGo will launch even more frequent transit service, delivering on the promise of a new transit network.”