by Thomas P. Healy
One road to more jobs in Indianapolis will soon run through Midtown. On Feb. 9, the U. S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) awarded $75 million to IndyGo to construct phase 1 of the Red Line, the nation’s first Electric Bus Rapid Transit (EBRT) service.
Funds come from the Small Starts grant, a competitive funding mechanism that’s part of the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program that funded 31 projects in 18 states. According to the FTA, the CIG Program is the federal government’s primary financial resource for supporting capital projects for transit systems that are locally planned, implemented, and operated.
In a refreshing show of bipartisan support, both houses of Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and President Obama signed it into law in December 2015. It provides $49 billion in funding for transit over the next five years, including the CIG’s Small Starts, New Starts, and Core Capacity programs.
FTA’s discretionary allocations for transit are disbursed through a series of competitive grants, including Small Starts, for new and expanded rail, bus rapid transit, and streetcar systems that FTA says “reflect local priorities to improve transportation options in key corridors.” Projects are evaluated and rated using a set of criteria that include environmental benefits, economic development opportunities, and mobility improvements.
President Obama’s $4.2 trillion budget proposal for 2017 requested $3.5 billion to improve the nation’s transportation systems through the CIG’s Small Starts, New Starts, and Core Capacity programs.
According to an analysis by the National Priorities Project (NPP), a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that tracks federal spending, President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget “includes proposals that would explicitly create economic opportunity, or help to ameliorate the effects of growing inequality, including a clean transportation package that would create hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs in an economy that still doesn’t provide enough opportunities for good-paying work.”
In a Feb. 10 conference call with media, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx lauded the “bold, forward-looking proposals” put forth by the President. Asked specifically how the Red Line qualified for the grants award, he replied, “In Indianapolis, jobs are concentrated in a ring around the city, and there is a population in the center of the city that needs access to those jobs. The Red Line proposal aims to provide greater access to job opportunities and to achieve the local community vision of how that can be accomplished.”
IndyGo President and CEO Mike Terry was thrilled by the grant announcement and concurred with Secretary Foxx’s assessment. “This particular first phase will access 100,000 jobs that already exist along the corridor plus four higher education institutions and the state’s largest medical complex,” he said. “It’s going to add another dimension to transportation options and help us further demonstrate how multimodal this community can be.”
The funding will enable IndyGo to begin Phase 1 construction of the Red Line in spring 2017. Construction will occur in phases, each lasting approximately three months. Completion is estimated at 18 months after breaking ground. Service could begin as early as fall 2018.
The Small Starts Grant covers approximately 78% of the project cost and required a local match. IndyGo secured its $18 million share by combining monies from the Downtown Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District and general funds from the City of Indianapolis Department of Public Works (DPW). According to IndyGo’s grant application to USDOT, it has budgeted sufficient funds to operate and maintain the system in its first full year of operation.
Midtown will be a key beneficiary of the EBRT system that is set to offer service in 10-minute intervals and extend hours of service on weekdays and weekends. The first segment of the Red Line will run for 13 miles from 66th and College Avenue in Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis via the Downtown Transit Center that is slated to open this summer.
Terry anticipates that neighborhoods will benefit from the project. “A large portion of construction through Midtown will be dedicated right-of-way and provide opportunity for improvements,“ he said.
In a January meeting with Forest Hills residents, IndyGo project manager Justin Stuehrenberg outlined how City funds would be used. “DPW will help with infrastructure improvements—traffic signals, sidewalks and curbs,” he said. For example, curb bump-outs (sidewalk extensions at intersections) will be added along the College corridor at 57th, 46th, and 42nd streets. “They improve pedestrian safety by reducing the amount of roadway to cross,” he said. Striping crosswalks at intersections will also improve safety, as will adding sidewalks along 54th Street and on Kessler Boulevard. A stoplight will be installed at 61st street, he added.
In answer to a question about congestion, Stuehrenberg said the dedicated EBRT lane will have a positive impact on traffic flow, easing congestion by an estimated 10-second gain southbound and a 30-second delay northbound.
Stuehrenberg said the 3-inch-high medians for dedicated lanes in the middle of College Avenue and Meridian Street will be designed to discourage left turns. “Left turns and U-turns will be permitted only at signalized intersections,” he said. This news was not well-received by attendees who are used to turning left off of College Avenue to enter their driveways. Small-business owners along the corridor have also expressed concerns about limited access to their establishments.
Despite all the successes of the past couple of years, IndyGo’s Terry said, “The work’s just begun. We’re going to be back out again and do outreach and meetings with the business community and residents.”
Terry said results from the 2015 IndyGo Forward outreach process will be folded into the Marion County Transit Plan he hopes to see adopted by the IndyGo Board of Directors in March. “We’re getting final comments on the plan and working with the City-County Council, getting them up to speed with what the plan is,” he said.
The plan revitalizes local bus service to improve frequency and feed into rapid transit corridors like the Red Line as well as the proposed Purple Line slated for 38th Street and the Blue Line along Washington Street.
In addition to adopting the plan, Terry and his team will lobby for the Council to call the question and put a referendum on the November ballot. “That needs to be done by the end of May,” he said.
Terry explained that the referendum will seek permission to levy a 0.25% Local Option Income Tax to increase funding for expanding the county’s transit system and allow for implementation of the regional Indy Connect Plan.
Should the referendum pass in November, the Council would then introduce a measure to assess the levy and vote to adopt.
Indy Connect is a joint effort between IndyGo, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority that identified the need for mass transit to sustain the area’s economic competitiveness and proposed a series of rapid transit routes for the region.