Transit Plan Shifts Gears, Keeps Moving

Rendering of proposed Red Line station at 30th and Meridian looking north.

by Thomas P. Healy

Waiting for Congress to act is fraught with more uncertainty than wondering when the next bus will arrive.

Transit advocates struggle to remain optimistic that Congress will fully fund federal capital investment grant programs embedded in the stalled 2017 appropriations bill.

Unless Congress passes a budget that contains authorization for the allocation of the funds, IndyGo won’t have access to the $75 million Small Starts Grant it was awarded in 2016.

Instead of passing a budget in 2016, Congress relied on a series of continuing resolutions to maintain federal government operations. The current resolution expires April 28, but there’s pressure on Congress beyond that.

The Trump administration called for deep cuts to transit grant programs when it issued recommendations for the 2018 budget in early March. What concerned transit officials and advocates around the country was the administration’s suggestion that it wanted Congress to enact the cuts in the 2017 budget now under discussion.

According to Steve Davis, communications director for Transportation for America (T4A), a Washington, D.C.–based multi-modal advocacy group, if Congress agrees with the President and chooses not to allocate funds, “Indy would be at the front of a line that would no longer be moving. That would be a huge setback.”

Losing out on a $75 million check from the federal government hampers speedy implementation of projects like the Red Line, Davis said. “It’s about being able to work with cash in hand as opposed to being dependent on future revenues to bond against.”

Indy isn’t alone. Davis said the Red Line is one of eight transit projects nationwide in municipalities that have already set aside a share of local funds and were recommended by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for funding in 2017. By T4A’s reckoning, nearly 40 additional projects nationally are in various stages of development. All are jeopardized by proposed funding cuts.

“The administration doesn’t see transit as a good use of federal monies,” Davis said. His organization disagrees. Davis points to a 2015 peer-reviewed report, National Study of BRT Development Outcomes, [PDF] that found bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors exhibited multiple economic benefits: increased new office and multi-family apartment construction and a positive shift in higher wage job growth.

Chart courtesy of Indy Connect.

“A fiscal analysis we conducted for Indianapolis showed substantial benefits in terms of municipal revenues and costs if future development could be attracted to areas around their new bus rapid transit stations,” added Chris Zimmerman, vice president for economic development at Smart Growth America.

All agree that the administration and members of Congress need to hear from constituents. “Tell them that we kicked in our money—we’re not looking for a handout,” Davis said. “We’re counting on support from the federal government to help make it happen.”

Davis expressed confidence in local community leaders to help Indy stay competitive and find a way forward through the current impasse.

One of those leaders is the Indy Chamber. Mark Fisher, vice president of government relations and policy development for the organization, joined chamber president and CEO Michael Huber and IndyGo president Mike Terry on a trip to the nation’s capital in early April to advocate for transit funding. “We’ve been in communication with the FTA and the Indiana congressional delegation, and there’s a strong recognition that these are very popular grant programs,” Fisher said.

“It’s really encouraging that we as a community have stepped up and created a dedicated revenue stream to fund transit,” he added. “We need a strong partner at the federal level.”

Fisher was one of several local leaders who signed on to a March 31 letter [PDF] circulated by T4A to House and Senate appropriators, urging full funding for transit initiatives. The letter reads in part, “Both the TIGER and Capital Investment Grants programs . . . provide unique, cost-effective, and innovative solutions that leverage private, state, and local investment to solve complex transportation opportunities and spur economic development.” Indianapolis has benefitted from two previous TIGER grants: one for the Cultural Trail and another for the Downtown Transit Center.

Despite uncertainty over the availability of federal funds for the Red Line project, IndyGo continues to fine-tune its implementation of the Marion County Transit Plan. “We can build out the plan without the federal funds,” said Lauren Day, IndyGo’s marketing and communications manager, during a series of public open houses about the Red Line in March. “It will just take longer.”

While that means more buses, more often, earlier and later, without federal funds it could also mean fewer supporting infrastructure improvements. The Red Line project is confined to the immediate BRT corridor right-of-way. “IndyGo is not working on sidewalks a block away,” Day said. Nevertheless, those sidewalks—along with side street, alley, and drainage improvements—help improve access to transit and make it more attractive.

IndyGo acknowledges that fact, Day said, but recognizes that “infrastructure improvements outside of the transit lines will be much more difficult to make happen without federal money.”

IndyGo’s partners in the City—the Department of Public Works, the Department of Metropolitan Development, and the mayor’s office—continue to look for other federal funding sources, such as Safe Routes to School, to pay for infrastructure enhancements.

While the nation’s first electric BRT line is the focus, IndyGo’s overarching goal is to provide improved transit service for the community. “Dedicated funds from the referendum will build out the entire plan, not just the Red Line,” Day said. “Local route improvements will be phased in as we build out the rapid transit lines. It’s not one or the other.”

That means the people who voted to fund increased frequency seven days a week will benefit from the phased-in approach. Day said, “The plan the public helped us create is still going to happen.”