by Thomas P. Healy
Long-standing aspirations for significant improvements to the City’s bus system moved from wishful thinking to active engagement in 2015.
As IndyGo, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation is responsible for operating the City’s transit services. During the first half of 2015 IndyGo staff held public meetings to solicit community feedback on proposals to upgrade service. IndyGo contracted with Jarrett Walker + Associates, a Portland, Oregon–based transit consulting firm, to assist with the process. Jarrett Walker, the firm’s founder, is well regarded by transit advocates for his track record of helping communities create transit systems that meet local needs.
The comprehensive strategy—dubbed IndyGo Forward—is designed to improve service in such transit-friendly corridors as Meridian Street and College Avenue in Midtown. According to Bryan Luellen, IndyGo’s director of marketing and customer information, maps of the proposed changes are available online. The new service will commence once the downtown Transit Center opens.
A $2 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation permitted IndyGo to hire Chicago-based CDM Smith to help design and engineer Phase 1 of the Red Line, the nation’s first electric Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. IndyGo President and CEO Mike Terry said CDM Smith’s experience in assisting Cleveland with the successful Healthline BRT system was considered particularly valuable.
Additional public information sessions and stakeholder meetings were held throughout the spring and summer to fine-tune the Red Line plan prior to submitting a Small Starts Grant application in September. Mayor Ballard said Indianapolis was encouraged by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to apply for federal funds that could cover 80 percent of the construction cost for Phase 1 of the Red Line, which will run from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis. IndyGo’s application requested $75 million that will be matched by $18 million in local funding.
In October, the Central Indiana Regional Development Authority (CIRDA) sought that local match by budgeting $15 million for the Red Line as part of its $30 million request of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s (IEDC) Regional Cities Initiative. Instead of the two $42 million grants from a state tax amnesty program, the success of the tax amnesty program in raising more than $137 million spurred IEDC to proposed three grants. However, the Indy proposal was not selected.
And in December, IndyGo took delivery of the final shipment of its 21 fully electric buses making it one of the largest electric transit fleets in the country. “We feel it’s important to push the envelope and utilize newer technologies to make our operation as efficient as possible,” said IndyGo President and CEO, Mike Terry. He said in addition to lower operating costs the community will benefit from reduced noise and pollution. IndyGo provided nearly 9.7 million passenger trips in 2015.
Given all that hard-won traction, it is surprising to hear expressions of dismay and alarm about Midtown transit during Red Line public open houses at the College Avenue library branch and the Indianapolis Art Center and at neighborhood meetings. While proposed parking and left turn restrictions necessary for the Red Line’s dedicated lane were the source of many complaints, some attendees questioned the benefits of transit.
The Ballard administration will likely go down in history as the city’s strongest transit advocate after years of success in acquiring federal funds to help underwrite the Downtown Transit Center and other projects. In a post-Election Day conversation, Mayor Ballard expressed gratitude for federal support. “We’ve always had a great relationship with USDOT—Ray LaHood previously and now Anthony Foxx, who used to be the Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. I knew him as the mayor. He’s a great guy and continues to be a great guy to Indianapolis. They give us money to do things if it works.” Ballard cited the TIGER grant for the Red Line study as an example. “We were ahead of everybody else on the first electric BRT. We were the first in the nation to think like that and they gave us $2 million for design and engineering.”
In his segment of the October Regional Cities presentation, IndyGo’s Mike Terry noted that Secretary Foxx visited Indianapolis this past summer and offered encouragement to civic leaders for the BRT project by saying, “We believe in Indianapolis. We believe this is important and we will provide technical support.”
According to Secretary Foxx, funding such innovative projects is essential for citizens who use transportation systems to reach jobs, schools, health care, shopping, friends, and family. “How long it takes and how much it costs them to accomplish these daily tasks is an important measure that we call connectivity,” he said. “This department is committed to making significant investments to improve the research and state of practice in measuring connectivity.”
Foxx added, “Ultimately, we all want to build transportation networks that are foundations of strong communities, where people can get to work efficiently, reliably, and cheaply, where main streets are thriving and walkable, and neighborhoods are safe and healthy.”
In 2010 the Cancer Control Section (CCS) of the Indiana State Department of Health was awarded a competitive grant by the Centers for Disease Control to implement policy, systems, and environmental changes to prevent and control cancer in Indiana.
One of the key policy initiatives undertaken was to increase the use of Complete Streets ordinances that accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, school buses, and transit riders of all ages and abilities. The reasons? Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Indiana and, according to the American Cancer Society, more than half of cancer deaths could be prevented by staying physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.
By encouraging people to walk more and use public transportation, CCS promotes a healthy lifestyle that reduces unintended chronic health conditions like cancer and obesity. The City of Indianapolis adopted a Complete Streets ordinance in 2012 that was deemed the nation’s best that year.
Since its adoption, Complete Streets components have been integrated into all of the City’s infrastructure projects: sidewalks, ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), bike lanes, and crosswalk improvements. The City’s Department of Public Works has also been working with IndyGo to collaborate on improvements to all public transit stops, including those proposed along the Red Line.
Meredith Klekotka was hired in 2015 as the city’s principle planner for transportation integration, to help continue this process of assimilation. “Complete Streets, from my personal and professional perspective, are at the core of what I do,” she said in a phone conversation from her office in the City-County Building.
Klekotka said her job is to look at land-use plans across the county as well as emerging trends and opportunities, with an eye toward integrating them into the transportation system. “I’m looking across all modes to make sure we’re managing demand on the current transportation system. We can’t add capacity in all areas.”
That requires ensuring that the public right-of-way is used for more than just single-occupant motor vehicles, an approach transit planners call multi-modal. Klekotka will bring this approach to bear on one of her primary tasks: Updating the 2002 Marion County Thoroughfare Plan. “It is the overall regional plan that looks at traffic flow across the county and identifies priority areas,” she said. Those priorities have changed since the first plan was adopted more than four decades ago. “It was originally focused on preserving right-of-way as growth happens in Marion County, but now we’re largely built out,” Klekotka noted. “Now it’s about how we are fitting all modes in compliance with Complete Streets into our system.”
Ensuring that the land-use criteria from the recently adopted Indy Rezone ordinance is incorporated in the Thoroughfare Plan ties in nicely with her other major task: Working closely with the City’s Complete Streets Advisory Group. “We’re finalizing a work plan, assigning tasks and projects,” Klekotka said.
Doesn’t this multi-modal approach increase congestion? “There is great data showing that 35 to 40 percent of trips throughout the U.S. are under 3 miles. That’s a huge number and those can easily be converted from automobiles to other modes,” she said, adding, “These are congestion-causing trips.”
Regarding lane and left-turn restrictions proposed for the Red Line corridor, she noted that “there are stats from the Federal Highway Administration from studies on road diets [a method of reducing or eliminating lanes by adding sidewalks, bike lanes and/or on-street parking] that deal with those concerns,” Klekotka said. “There’s good info out there that when it’s done thoughtfully and you put a mix of modes on to a street and control intersections and improve infrastructure, it can actually increase person throughput,” she said.
Person throughput? “In transportation we often talk about vehicle throughput—the number of cars you can run through a given location,” she explained. “There’s an increasing awareness in the field that for some urban contexts you should look more holistically at how many people are moving through an intersection.”
Klekotka said this holistic approach is being adopted in the Red Line plans. “As construction starts, we’ll be looking at integration of modes,” she said. “The ideal is that the whole experience is seamless. We don’t want you to fumble with your bike or wheelchair or stroller to get on a bus. Improve infrastructure and it’ll be a win for everyone.”
Consultant Jarrett Walker thinks differently about congestion. “There are only two things you can do to stop congestion—kill your economy or create much greater distances for people to drive in their cars,” he said by phone from his office. “Congestion is a poor way to describe mobility. It’s a measure of the experience of cars. As we create more alternatives, congestion affects fewer people.”
Walker contends that increased mobility has widespread economic benefits. “What transit does in the long run is make it possible to live in a city and to participate in economic life in the city without a car, creating options that some people will choose. That enables your economy to keep growing beyond the point where congestion would otherwise limit it.”
Mark Fisher, Indy Chamber’s vice president of government relations, is bullish on transit’s potential to improve mobility, connectivity, and economic development. “Transit has multiple benefits,” he said recently by phone from his Butler-Tarkington home. “It’s an opportunity for neighborhood redevelopment in some of the most challenged neighborhoods, and it leads to the attraction of young Millennial talent.”
Besides economic and connectivity benefits, Fisher said the Chamber and CIRDA are keenly aware of the immediate workforce mobility challenge. “As manufacturing has moved from the city center to the periphery, people are unable to conveniently access health care, jobs, education, and workforce development opportunities to earn a higher standard of living.”
The lesson, Fisher said, is that it’s necessary to develop a system to serve current residents, not just future ones. “The people who make this city run are often transit-dependent,” he said.
Fisher said this realization spurred a consortium of business, educational, philanthropic, and community leaders to craft the IndyConnect comprehensive regional transportation plan. The Red Line electric BRT would be the first of the plan’s rapid transit corridors. If all of the funding falls into place, construction could begin as early as spring of 2017, with hope for a 2018 grand opening. “Think about it as a critical component of building out an entire system—a proof-of-concept for a transportation network that’s not reliant on the single-occupant motor vehicle,” he said.
The economic merits of improving Indy’s transit system have not been lost on educators. In a letter supporting the Small Starts Grant application, IPS Superintendent Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee wrote, “Researchers at Harvard University’s Equality of Opportunity Project recently found Indianapolis to rank 40th out of the 50 largest American cities on a key measure of intergenerational economic mobility. By improving commuter access to quality employment, I am hopeful that the Red Line will play a key role in beginning to address the economic mobility challenges evidenced in the literature.”
Ferebee’s enthusiasm was matched by the IPS Board of School Commissioners, which unanimously agreed to sign a letter of support for the Red Line. “It will connect schools such as Broad Ripple Magnet High School; the Butler Lab School; Shortridge High School, an IB World School; and all three Centers for Inquiry to surrounding communities,” the Commissioners wrote, concluding, “We believe our city and our neighborhoods are ready for mass transit that brings more of us together. A connected city is a successful city.”
A version of this article appears in the December 2015 / January 2016 print edition.