A few years back, Indiana’s Department of Transportation (INDOT) established a website for project information on I-69 and I-465, the outer-belt that encircles Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana’s biggest metro area and capital city. INDOT explained that Operation Indy Commute is an initiative “to strategically eliminate recurring commuting bottlenecks”. Operation Indy Commute costs $65 million for new interchange capacity and access lanes.
INDOT’s focus on commuting is noteworthy. Commuting involves local trips to work, school, shopping, healthcare. Commuting demands a lot of capacity on increasingly congested roadways meant originally for interstate travel. But Indianapolis/Marion County is a thriving region, projected to grow from 934,243 people in 2014 to 951,780 by 2020. People need to move. No one likes to be stuck in traffic. What should they do — take a bus?
Actually, a broad coalition in Indianapolis has a prompt answer: Yes, take the bus. More specifically, get ready to take a bus within the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system ready to move from planning to construction in early 2017, and ready to ride in 2018.
What Is BRT?
BRT is frequently described as a hybrid between traditional city bus service and light rail. BRT seeks to provide light rail’s advantages: fast travel on exclusive travel lanes, fixed routes, and a limited number of stops. Light rail draws people who rarely consider riding a bus at home but very willingly, for example, get on the D.C. Metro’s Orange Line at Virginia Square, ride nine stops to transfer to the Green Line atL’Enfant Plaza, and get off at Navy Yard to walk to a Nationals game — easy as pie.
Indy’s BRT coalition wants people to do the same: Get on the Green Line at Castleton Square Mall, ride nine stops and transfer downtown to the Blue Line, and get off at Lucas Oil Stadium and walk to a Colts’ game. That exact scenario is still a way off, but the image of easy and convenient transit is important for BRT acceptance.
Transit fosters pedestrian and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods and business centers, places in high demand these days. Transit-oriented development (TOD) has broader, more substantive benefits, too, including access to jobs and education for people who either cannot drive or cannot afford a car, not to mention families that might need a second or third car.
The first phase of Indy’s BRT project will be called the Red Line. Initial service will be a 13.6-mile route with 7.7 miles of exclusive or semi-exclusive roadway. The Red Line starts southeast of the city at the University of Indianapolis and runs north to a neighborhood called Broad Ripple. It will operate through the densest areas of the city, among residential, commercial, and hospitality/tourism venues and destinations. Cost of the first phase is projected at $96 million, with $75 million coming from an anticipated Federal Transit Administration “Small Starts” grant.
The Indy Chamber is an active supporter. “We’ve been working at this for a decade,” comments Mark Fisher, the Chamber’s Vice President of Government Relations & Policy Development. The Chamber is more than an observer. Fisher serves as the Chamber’s representative on the board of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority.
BRT’s business case: Workforce mobility and employment, particularly employment beyond low-wage, entry-level jobs, said Fisher. Second: community reinvestment. The Chamber is working with medical centers and colleges to hire locally and to develop areas around their campuses. BRT complements that.
Jeff Kingsbury is managing principal of Greenstreet Ltd., an Indianapolis-based real estate and consulting firm. He has studied TOD along the Red Line. Sites at proposed stations, within a quarter mile and a half-mile walking distance, are ready — with sidewalks, connectivity, and large parcels. “There is a wide range of (development) opportunity within the system,” Kingsbury says.
In a city almost synonymous with the automobile, the Red Line is quite a step for Indianapolis. A top concern, of course, is ridership. Indy projects 11,000 initial Red Line riders. The corridor now has 7,400 bus customers. Transit requires operating subsidies, which are kept lower by ridership fares. Importantly, existing bus service will remain within part of the Red Line corridor, which means the transit agency will be running two systems. If BRT draws 3,600 new riders, is that enough? With the general expectation that development will be pulled toward fixed transit, that could happen, but what if it doesn’t?
Lessons From Other Cities
Indianapolis is one of 26 U.S. cities — from Hartford, Conn., to Chicago to Phoenix — with BRT systems either in operation or within some phase of development. Lessons from other systems are important, but they are conditional. Measures of success are not uniform across all systems.
Tim Reynolds is a transit specialist with Parsons Brinckerhoff, a transportation consulting firm. Regarding station area development, Reynolds points out that major BRT systems opened around 2008, a low point for real estate and development markets. With the economy since focused on recovery, it’s not reasonable now to expect over-the-top station area development. Still, it’s hard to overlook Cleveland’s BRT, the “HealthLine” (naming rights were bought by the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals). Since 2008, Cleveland’s Regional Transit Authority (RTA) estimates the HealthLine “delivered more than $6.3 billion in economic development along the Euclid Corridor.”
Reynolds points out that demand for more service is a good measure of success. Kansas City’s MAX opened its first BRT line 10 years ago. A second line opened in 2011. Now a third line, on Prospect Avenue, is in development.
Regarding ridership and fare revenue, peer city reviews are encouraging. The HealthLine replaced a bus route that had RTA’s highest ridership. By 2014, BRT ridership increased by 60 percent over the bus. Since opening in 2008, HealthLine has carried over 29 million riders.
In Hartford, Conn., a nine-mile BRT started operations in 2015. Bus ridership prior to BRT was at 8,000 weekday passenger trips. Now, BRT weekday trips average between 12,000 and 16,000, going as high as 18,000 on some days. (A Starbucks just opened at one of the stations.)
Meeting the Challenges
To the extent that Indy’s Red Line is grounded in dependable, fast service to in-demand destinations, the chances for success, both for transportation and area development, don’t seem fanciful, based on peer-city experiences. Again, BRT is new. Among U.S. systems, none have “failed” or were otherwise canceled for not meeting initial metrics. Such outcomes could still happen, but ridership trends are strong.
As noted, the Red Line is the first of a hoped-for system of five BRT lines and upgraded bus service. Two critical funding issues are approaching.
First, the $75 million FTA grant mentioned above is not a sure thing. Indeed, it may be in the President’s proposed 2017 budget, but with the federal budget process what goes in does not always come out. The $75 million is critical. Ground-breaking will send a powerful “can do” signal that this is action, not just talk.
The second big money event is a ballot issue this fall. Indianapolis and Marion County citizens will vote on raising their local income tax 0.25 percent, from 1.77 percent, to pay for BRT, i.e., an entire BRT system – not just the Red Line. That campaign is just starting. It’s worth noting that INDOT did NOT need a campaign and a vote to pay $65 million for Operation Indy Commute. For big transit projects, it’s a struggle just getting to the starting line.