IndyGo Moving Forward Against All Odds

Purple Line BRT station at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. IndyGo rendering

by Thomas P. Healy

IndyGo continues to navigate the exceptionally difficult legislative, logistical, and financial challenges of 2020 as it strives to fulfill its promise to radically improve public transportation in Indianapolis.

The year began with a pair of legislative maneuvers that threatened to thwart implementation of the Marion County Transit Plan.

At the federal level, the massive National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed in December 2019, included language that banned the use of federal funds to purchase railcars or buses from companies with links to China—even if manufacturing plants are located within the United States. Part of a larger trade war between the U.S. and China, the ban pulled the plug on IndyGo’s battery electric bus vendor, BYD, that operates a union-staffed manufacturing plant in Fremont, CA. IndyGo has a $32 million purchase agreement for 31 60-foot extended buses to use on the Red Line, and because that order was placed prior to the NDAA’s enactment, it was not affected.

However, IndyGo president and CEO Inez Evans said BYD promised 275-mile service on a full battery charge, but the buses have not performed. “We have not paid BYD yet,” she told the public works committee of the City-County Council in April. “We are holding them accountable.” Evans reported that IndyGo canceled an order for five additional BYD buses. Instead, the transit agency has ordered 27 hybrid buses from Gillig, a California-based manufacturer. Evans said the manufacturer has promised a 480-mile range and that the buses will reduce emissions by 75% per bus compared to conventional diesel buses. She added that IndyGo remains committed to using all-electric buses on current and future BRT lines.

Closer to home, in the waning days of the Indiana General Assembly’s 2020 session, state Senator Aaron Freeman authored an amendment to House Bill 1279 that sought to financially penalize IndyGo if it did not raise 10% of its funding from sources other than taxes and fares. At issue was the 2016 authorizing legislation that gave Marion County and the Indianapolis City-County Council permission to hold a referendum on establishing a local income tax dedicated to public transit. Embedded within that legislation was a requirement that IndyGo establish a nonprofit entity to raise 10% of its operating funds privately.

No penalty was specified in the legislation in the event IndyGo failed to raise the 10%. Sen. Freeman’s amendment sought to create a penalty, proposing to withhold 10% from the annual local income tax distribution. Based on projections from the State Budget Agency, IndyGo is expected to receive approximately $59 million in 2020’s distribution, meaning if Freeman’s amendment had become law, IndyGo would have had to forfeit $5.9 million. After frantic and heated conference committee sessions right up to the 11th hour of the session, the legislation died.

COVID-19 Logistics

IndyGo barely had time to recover from the exhausting legislative battle when another challenge presented itself in the form of a public health emergency.

After the first confirmed case in Indiana on March 6, Governor Eric Holcomb declared a public health emergency. Over the course of that month, state and local elected officials began to address federal guidelines for protecting the health and safety of citizens by issuing stay-at-home orders. All citizens except those in what were deemed “essential” occupations were asked to work from home. Recommendations included using public transit for essential trips only.

As a result, on March 29, IndyGo implemented rear entrance boarding, waived fares, and switched to a Saturday operations schedule for Monday through Saturday.

IndyGo Adapts to Governor’s Stay-At-Home Order

Riders were asked to physically distance themselves from each other and from the operators by sitting in the rear of the bus.

In early April, IndyGo partnered with the Martin Luther King Community Center to launch the Midtown-Get-Around mobility pilot project. Originally designed to use a fleet of passenger vans as a door-to-door micro-transit service within the MLK Center’s service area, the project shifted gears to using the vans for grocery and prescription deliveries.

On May 4, IndyGo resumed fare collection and front door boarding after installing Plexiglas shields to protect operators. The front sections of buses were also opened up for riders but physical distancing was still required. Regular weekday operating schedules resumed June 1.

To protect riders and staff, IndyGo increased the frequency of bus cleaning and sanitization using a process called electrostatic disinfection. A mist of disinfecting solution is sprayed into the interior of every bus. The spray contains a negative charge that allows particles to adhere to surfaces and coat hard-to-reach areas. To comply with the July 9 Marion County Public Health Department mandatory face covering order, IndyGo requires all passengers to wear face masks.

Financial Challenges

IndyGo’s costs for sanitization and personal protection equipment for operators and staff are substantial. As part of the June 25 board packet, IndyGo reports that as of May 31, 2020, the company has spent more than $797,000 in unbudgeted employee compensation to include overtime because of COVID-19. That number is expected to reach $1 million by the 4th quarter.

Fortunately, as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress made $22.7 billion available for transit in large and small urban areas. Indianapolis received $41,058,016. Unlike most federal funding, no local match was required and there is no deadline by which funds must be used. In addition to operating expenses, including employee compensation, Congress stipulated that the funds could also be used for capital and planning expenses.

At its June 25 board meeting, IndyGo reported spending more than $3.1 million to deal with the pandemic. The board report also outlines expectations for continued decline in revenue. Passenger service revenue for May was $621,037, 68% under budget, and year-to-date revenue was $1,857,567, 43% below projections.

Planning Ahead

IndyGo had originally planned to launch its new, frequent grid-based bus network in June, but the IndyGo board decided to postpone its implementation. Despite the setback, IndyGo achieved some remarkable successes in the first half of the year.

In April, Jennifer Pyrz was added to IndyGo’s management team as the new chief development officer and vice president of infrastructure, strategy, and innovation. Pyrz will lead and guide all of IndyGo’s capital plan projects, manage all real estate development, and oversee project administration and construction management. In her previous role as HNTB’s planning group director for the Indianapolis office, she worked closely with the City of Indianapolis Department of Public Works (DPW) and IndyGo on the Red Line BRT construction project.

Pyrz will now lead the team working on the Purple and Blue BRT lines that are part of fulfilling the Marion County Transit Plan’s goals of providing reliable, fast transit service to the majority of city residents.

Those plans received a boost on May 11, when the Indianapolis City-Council Council approved Proposal 142, [PDF] the ordinance that includes the necessary language regarding right-of-way modifications so that IndyGo can move forward with the Purple Line BRT design. The $155 million project includes $95 million in infrastructure improvements along the 15.2-mile route. As with the Red Line, construction of the Purple Line will include new pavement, new or repaired sidewalks, a new multiuse path for pedestrians and bicyclists, and new traffic signals and curb ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In coordination with DPW and local utilities, the project will result in significantly improved drainage solutions for the corridor.

Three different design configurations in the public right-of-way are outlined in Prop 142. In Midtown, the stretch of 38th Street between Guilford Avenue and Fall Creek Parkway is the center-running, bi-directional design like that used along the College Avenue portion of the Red Line. The new Midtown station will be located in front of the Indiana State Fairgrounds at Coliseum Avenue.

As on College Avenue, turns across bi-directional dedicated lanes are controlled by traffic signals while unsignalized left turns are generally prohibited. Barriers will be constructed on Winthrop Avenue to force right turns only onto 38th Street. For the stretch of 38th Street from Guilford Avenue to Meridian Street, buses will mix with other traffic.

IndyGo’s most significant recent success was when U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced May 29 that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approved Purple Line funding through FTA’s Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program. In a statement, IndyGo’s Inez Evans said, “Advancing the Purple Line project is a great step in our plan to increase service and invest in the 38th Street corridor infrastructure and job market.” The Purple Line project is planned to go to bid in early 2021, with rapid transit service projected to begin in 2023.