Federal grant advances new bus service

Downtown Transit Center is slated to open this summer. Rendering courtesy IndyGo.

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.”

Improving access

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.

Leveraging Improvements

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.

Moving Forward

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.

4 Comments on Federal grant advances new bus service

  1. I think we are in need of an improved transit system but tell me what jobs this proposed line will provide in the Meridian Kessler area into Broad Ripple beyond contractors looking to cash in on creating density along this route by building high rise apartments, more bars and restaurants? I am not a jobs expert but Keystone Ave seems to have that need verses a route dominated by housing, small businesses and part time employment? College Ave north of 49th street is already clogged enough and we don’t need to choke it down even more and kill the small businesses that have been there for years who rely on the parking College Ave offers. Take the Redline down College Ave and East on 49th to Keystone which makes the most sense! This area has grown organically and is doing just fine without the need for federal dollars which makes it so special. Let’s bring this Red Line in and commercialize this area which is the long term plan of Midtown anyway and ruin it. Federal funding should benefit those who need it the most, not the luxury line to the Broad Ripple bars and eventually the Palladium in Carmel! My thoughts.

    • This issue is about access to jobs throughout the entire corridor not just in Meridian-Kessler or Broad Ripple. There are residents in these neighborhoods who want transportation options to reach jobs downtown. The Red Line is only one piece of the larger transit picture which is the Marion County Transit Plan – a comprehensive network of upgraded routes to provide greater mobility to a large segment of the community. Given your stated desire for an improved transit system, one hopes you could embrace this positive change. The College corridor was not selected arbitrarily – there are key commercial nodes, some of which you correctly identify as developing organically, but the process can be enhanced by improved transit as well as complementary ordinances like Indy Rezone and the city’s outstanding Complete Streets policy. This community development model (transit, updated zoning and increased bike/pedestrian infrastructure) is a comprehensive attempt to build on key assets like Broad Ripple and Meridian-Kessler to help Indianapolis thrive in a very competitive environment. The decisions made 30 years ago about developing downtown left out key neighborhoods. The Midtown initiative is about bringing attention back to the neighborhoods that have been neglected at the expense of Downtown redevelopment so that they may evolve and thrive. Redeveloping key commercial nodes along the historic trolley lines is building on a key asset and a smart move for the future. Calling the Red Line a luxury line is as provocative as calling a 4 story building a high-rise – also as inaccurate.

  2. Phase one of Redline provides essentially no jobs access. It ends at 66th street by Broad Ripple. To extend further and actually access jobs, a referendum will have to pass and voters to the north will have to agree to host and pay for the next phase. Support isn’t there, so the bus will likely dead end. As part of a comprehensive transit system, Redline might make sense. But, there is no evidence that voters are willing to approve the substantial tax increases necessary to build a transit system. There is no evidence that voters will even approve the tax increases to run and maintain Redline Phase One. Redline could easily become a massive drain on the Indygo system’s operating budget without providing much benefit. Despite the hoopla, Phase One provides no improved job access, and that’s the only phase that can progress without public support.

    • I attend an awful lot of meetings about transit, economic development, greenspace and public safety and a common theme in all these meetings is the need for transit options. Should the Council approve placing the referendum on the ballot, there will be an opportunity for the electorate to demonstrate whether it wishes the community to thrive and evolve or to stagnate and regress. While the referendum will include funding for the Red Line beyond Phase 1 which is already covered, the key aspect of the referendum is the comprehensive improvement to the city’s regular bus system – increased frequency in areas that have demonstrated the greatest need and offering more options to a larger portion of the community than are currently served by transit. Transit has a funny history in this town – some folks say transit in Indy is awful, and then do everything they can to make sure that remains the case. Other folks in town are taking a much broader view of what constitutes prosperity, equity and freedom of choice. Back in the 1980s a group of alternative transit advocates hosted Hike, Bike and Bus week. The slogan – “Meet People Face-to-Face Instead of Bumper-to-Bumper.” We maintained that transit builds community. During the ensuing years we’ve seen what happens when transit is allowed to devolve. Why not take advantage of the broad-based coalition that is advocating on behalf of the Marion County Transit Plan and craft a system that exemplifies what is best about our community?

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