Federal Funding Supports Transit Plan

Broad Ripple BRT station. Rendering courtesy IndyGo.

by Thomas P. Healy

Efforts to implement the Marion County Transit Plan have received a big financial boost recently, and a couple of small ones too.

The biggest boost came from Congress, which crafted bi-partisan support for a $1 trillion omnibus spending bill for FY 17 signed by President Trump on May 5. The budget included a $2.5 billion allocation for the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Capital Investment Grants program. A program for projects costing less than $300 million known as “Small Starts” is one of those grant programs. It includes a $50 million allocation for Phase 1 of the Red Line, the nation’s first electric bus rapid transit line.

Michael Terry, president and CEO of IndyGo, the municipal corporation that operates the city’s transit system, was particularly pleased by the announcement because uncertainty over federal funding had led to growing concerns about the timely implementation of the Red Line. “The final votes in the House and Senate to appropriate $50M to the Red Line will help the project progress on schedule,” he said.

Bryan Luellen, IndyGo’s vice president of public affairs and communications, said IndyGo is coordinating with the FTA on regular reviews of the project. “We’re preparing a grant agreement to obtain access to funds,” he said. “With a secured agreement and an ‘executed’ grant, we can draw funding from the grant balance for incurred expenses.” He said such federal grants are managed through an online portal. “There are no lump sum deposits up front,” he said.

While IndyGo had requested—and was approved for—a $75 million Small Starts grant, Luellen said the lesser amount was anticipated. “As early as summer of 2016, there were indications that the grant award would likely be split over two funding years.”

“Often construction timelines for larger infrastructure projects span more than one year,” said Justin Stuehrenberg, IndyGo’s vice president of planning and capital projects. “The strategy of splitting a project’s full funding between two fiscal years helps keep more projects in the FTA pipeline moving.”

Both agreed that the federal funding is welcome, as it means engineering work on the 13-mile Red Line corridor can be completed so that construction can begin soon. The goal is for service to commence in 2019. IndyGo is planning to continue its outreach efforts and host several more public sessions to discuss the Red Line construction schedule as well as implementation timetable for the full Marion County Transit Plan.

Pedestrian infrastructure

For mass transit to work effectively, safe and easy access is essential. According to the Transit Center, a New York based nonprofit transit advocacy group, the majority of transit riders typically walk to transit. Its 2016 report “Who’s On Board” describes three categories of transit users: all-purpose riders (people who routinely choose transit for a variety of trips), occasional riders, and commuters. “The majority of transit riders typically walk to transit,” the report states. “An overwhelming 80 percent of all-purpose riders do so. Just over half of commuters and occasional riders walk to transit.”

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has long recognized that improvements to transit access for pedestrians increases the likelihood that a person will choose to use transit.

Further, FHWA found that bicycle-to-transit services (trails, on-road bike lanes, and bike parking) enlarge transit’s catchment area by making it accessible to travelers who are beyond walking distances from transit stations (generally estimated at between one-quarter and one-half a mile, or a 10- to 15-minute walk.)

That’s why the Transit Center recommends to “grow all-purpose transit ridership by enabling more people to walk to useful transit”:

  • Concentrate development around transit corridors, and make the walk to transit safe, easy, and pleasant.
  • Concentrate transit improvements in walkable places with large numbers of residents and destinations.

Similar thinking informed the creation of the Marion County Transit Plan and led to the selection of the College Avenue and Meridian Street corridors for the Red Line.

While pedestrian infrastructure in the Red Line corridor is better than in many parts of the City, curb and sidewalk improvements are needed. The City’s Department of Public Works (DPW) is responsible for installing those elements and has been diligently seeking additional funding.

At the April 12, 2017, Public Works Board meeting, DPW senior project manager Mark Zwoyer presented the staff’s recommendation for an $849,000 project he dubbed “Safe Routes to Transit.” The funds will be available in FY2021 using support from the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) for the Red Line BRT corridor from 25th and Meridian streets north to 66th and College Ave.

Infographic © Fehr & Peers,
used with permission.

Zwoyer said the work will focus on intersections within a half-mile radius of Red Line stations and could include ADA-compliant ramps, curbs, sidewalks, crosswalks, bump-outs, and other traffic-calming infrastructure. “Pedestrian safety is a big deal,” he said, but added, “The program will not pay to add missing sidewalks.”

In May, the Metropolitan Planning Organization announced 30 infrastructure projects that will receive federal funding for projects in FY2022. A “Safe Routes to Transit” project for the Red Line’s southern section was approved as was $889,988 for pedestrian infrastructure enhancement in Midtown west of Delaware St., and east of I-65 from Fall Creek to 34th Street.

According to Warren Stokes, assistant public information officer at DPW, the focus area was determined by analyzing traffic data. “Any improvements within the area will be based on individual needs for each location. Our team will study the area within the project boundary during the design phase and develop design plans to improve as many identified needs as possible while staying within the budget awarded by the MPO,” he said. “Our goal for this project is to find ways to either improve or provide safe connectivity for pedestrians. We also want to look at ways to connect schools, parks, hospitals, and any other locations that generate frequent amounts of pedestrian traffic.”

Project design will begin next year with construction likely in late 2021 or early 2022. Potential improvements may consist of the following:

  • Curb and sidewalk modifications (curb ramp construction, sidewalk widening in the vicinity of curb ramps, sidewalk gap elimination, curb bump-outs, medians, median cuts)
  • Pavement markings (upgraded crossing, word/symbol messages)
  • Signage
  • Signalization (pedestrian phase modification, High Intensity Activated Crosswalk, or activated Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons).

The focus area was identified as one of a dozen pedestrian safety zones in 2016 by WalkWays, a pedestrian advocacy initiative run by the Alliance for Health Promotion (AHP) that analyzed high car-pedestrian crash zones in Marion County. WalkWays was successful in helping to craft a prioritization process in the City’s newly adopted Pedestrian Plan that outlined ways for the City to leverage its limited resources to address problem areas.

Kim Irwin, AHP executive director, is encouraged by the funding announcement. “It’s a good reminder about why we do planning and why it’s so important,” she said. “That’s how things end up getting done.”

The fact that the focus area is slated for increased transit service with implementation of the Marion County Transit Plan is another bonus because it helps insure that people who are walking are safe. “Transit and connectivity are important,” she said. “There are so many destinations in that zone—Ivy Tech, The Children’s Museum, grade schools—we have to ensure people can get to their destinations in a safe way.”

“It’s really encouraging to see that the planning work and the analysis we’ve done around pedestrian crashes are going to be directly addressed,” Irwin added. “We often say that money follows good planning and this is an excellent example of that.”