Rapid Transit Heading This Way

by Thomas P. Healy

Planning for the nation’s first Electric Bus Rapid Transit (EBRT) line is accelerating toward a September 2015 deadline to apply for a federal grant to fund construction of the IndyGo Red Line’s first phase.

A $2 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation is financing current planning and engineering efforts. Although awarded last September, TIGER funds were not available until late spring, when IndyGo hired highly regarded transit-planning firm CDM Smith to assist special projects director Justin Stuehrenberg in developing the route.

The first phase of the planned multi-county transit line will run from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis, Stuehrenberg said. “Based on feedback from stakeholder meetings this summer, we’ve narrowed down what our lane configurations are going to be in our proposal,” he said. “It’s not final by any means. It’s what we will be bringing to the August public meetings.”

Stuehrenberg said the public meetings would give the public an opportunity to “red flag” the proposal, “to make sure there’s nothing egregious before we submit the grant application in early September.”

Click to enlarge.
CLICK TO ENLARGE. Characteristics of Bus Rapid Transit systems. Graphic from 2015 GAO Bus Rapid Transit Report.

The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) Small Starts Grant is a competitive program to stimulate construction of transit systems nationwide. “We’re applying for an 80 percent federal share—the maximum we’re able to apply for,” he said. With an estimated price tag approaching $60 million for Phase 1, federal assistance is essential.

Stuehrenberg said IndyGo has been in regular contact with FTA staff, who have encouraged the request. “Our guidance from the FTA thus far is that our project is extremely well positioned and that it is a reasonable request.”

FTA is expected to announce notification of the award in April 2016 for federal fiscal year 2017 dollars. If its application is successful, IndyGo could receive money in the last quarter of 2016 and construction could commence in spring of 2017.

CDM Smith has worked on Cleveland’s HealthLine and Grand Rapids’ Silver Line. The two successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems have stimulated economic development and generated public interest in mass transit. According to CDM Smith principal Steve Goodreau, those examples bode well for Indianapolis, which has assets the other communities don’t have.

“Indy has a very developed downtown,” he said by phone between stakeholder meetings. “The central business district creates a strong link for a system like this. In some cities it’s spread along a corridor.”

The Red Line route is another plus. “It’s the largest employment corridor in the city. That’s the main driver—connecting residents to employment,” he said. Next on the list of desirable connection points come entertainment, hospitals, and universities. “The Red Line has all of those classic mix of purposes to make it a really strong transit corridor.”

Goodreau said widespread support for transit from the business community is another factor in Indy’s favor. “There’s been a lot of groundwork to help the introduction and growth of BRT. It’s good to see.”

He’s anxious to help Indy pioneer EBRT. “Personally that’s an exciting piece—being part of the first EBRT system. The technology is developing, so we’re keeping our eye on what kind of systems are out there—especially the charging systems,” Goodreau said.

He also noted the challenges of crafting a system using Indy’s street grid. A recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study of 20 BRT projects around the country found that while dedicated (bus-only) lanes improve service and riders’ experience, most BRT systems run in mixed traffic for 50 percent or more of their routes.

“Most communities have a hybrid of dedicated lanes and mixed-traffic lanes,” Goodreau said. “It has to do with traffic and community acceptance of change. But if you want to move a lot more people along a particular corridor without more roads, you need more transit.”

The proposed configuration of Midtown’s Red Line segment will feature a bi-directional center lane for buses only on Meridian Street and College Avenue, with a short connecting stretch along 38th Street.

Goodreau pointed to Eugene, Oregon, as a successful example of the bi-directional center lane configuration. Salt Lake City and San Jose are also considering that approach. “It’s used where right-of-way is narrow,” Goodreau said. “We’re trying to save on-street parking and design whatever’s best for the community.”

The goal is to design the system to mimic rail but with more flexibility than fixed-guideway options. “The fact is, the more rail-like you make it—fast, reliable, clean, and appealing to ride—the more people ride it,” he said.

Goodreau said an integrative approach is needed to harmonize all components. “Everything has to be thought of as a system—from the platform shelter design, to amenities, to how it works, looks, and functions for riders, operators, and everyone on the corridor,” he said. “It has to be unique, easy, and convenient.”

The design includes stations at half-mile intervals with multiple boarding options (a 60-foot EBRT bus will have three doors), at-grade boarding (so riders can easily roll wheelchairs, strollers, and bikes on the bus), ticket kiosks for advance purchase, and real-time route information.

Indy is getting a custom system, Goodreau said. “It’s not like a kit—we’re designing something unique for Indianapolis. That’s why it’s important to get community input.”

The GAO report also found that transit systems stimulate economic development. IndyGo and City leaders are betting that the Red Line will achieve this goal. Based on his experiences in other markets, Goodreau thinks it’s a smart bet. “I think what will happen is the development community will observe opportunities and begin planning around it.”

IndyGo’s Stuehrenberg agrees. “Transit is a market enhancer, not a market maker. It can heavily enhance an area that is already experiencing some redevelopment pressure. The market in Midtown is there, it’s just bubbling beneath the surface—in some cases bubbling over the surface.”

He said the IndyGo team is very pleased with the level of support from the community. “People see the benefit to them in speeding their travel time and enhancing the development around here.”

Go to indygo.net/redline for details on upcoming public meetings.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 print edition of the magazine.