In February of 2010, the city of Indianapolis made an exciting announcement. Mayor Greg Ballard announced that a task force had been formed a year and a half prior to study the long term future of transportation in the Indianapolis area. They coined this marketing blitz, Indyconnect. This wasn’t simply public transportation, this was public transportation, automobile transit, pedestrian and bicycle access as well as issues regarding freight travel on rail and freeway. What followed, was a series of public meetings that engaged the public on the initial plan and asked for input on what the final plan should be.
A long winded analysis of the plan could be undertaken at this point. To save space, and your attention, I will take this opportunity to examine why rail is a reasonable goal for Indianapolis and why the NE Corridor is a poor choice for the first line to be constructed.
Detractors of rail based infrastructure developments will argue first that rail is expensive and that Indianapolis is not dense enough for it. They would also be correct. Rail IS expensive. And Indianapolis when examined at the county level probably isn’t dense enough. Cities across the nation have shown that if not handled responsibly and in a timely manner, construction and implimentation of the operating services can get out of hand which lead to delays and added expense. See: Austin, TX or Norfolk, VA.
All cons being said, there are pockets of Indianapolis that are perfectly suited for rail transit. It is commonly accepted that while rail upgrades do not always (and in most cases don’t) solve automobile congestion problems, what they do, is give options to those who wish to live without a car, or who cannot afford one. Indianapolis is a HUGELY auto dependent city. In the long term, it can be argued that providing choices for people that do not increase our dependance on foreign oil is prudent. It can also be argued that for long term environmental health, that auto-centric thinking should probably be scaled back to reduce greenhouse gases.
There are also a host of other justifications that rail supporters will give from improving health to the expense of automobile based development (ie: parking lots, low density strip malls, suburban sprawl, etc). I could go on for thousands of words citing studies that tell of the large expense of parking lots. The large expense of building and maintaining roadways that serve low density suburban populations, etc…
Analysis of routes
The NE Corridor however, represents an initial step in the wrong direction. To take a que from the Overhead Wire regarding Austin, TX, “What are they thinking??” From a purely political and logical point of view, it initially makes sense to give in and agree that the NE Corridor study area has been beaten to death. People sort of accept that it will go there, and politicians won’t fight this without pressure. There is currently an Environmental Impact Study being undertaken (EIS) that will determine the feasibility of this route, and it’s associated impacts. The expense involved in running rail for 15-25 miles (depending on the end points) will be HUGE. Examining the social point of view, the people living in the burbs have shown by voting (quite literally) with their wallet, that they LIKE buying cars.
The line if built as planned, will travel where CSX freight trains travel in the DT area. Then, it would travel through vacated neighborhoods like Martindale that are starting to see a resurgence of growth thanks to federal intervention. They will travel through SOME dense areas north of here and just when it begins to reach the southern Broad Ripple sphere of influence, the task force has agreed that all day service should stop about 10 blocks south at 38th street.
Conversely, if planners decided that the Washington Street light rail were to be constructed first, immediate impact could be realized. First, the agreed upon route travels through the densest areas that the Indianapolis region has to offer, perfect for rail transit’s target demographic. Even IndyGO rider numbers justify this claim based upon numbers from their #10 route (Washington Street). Additionally and behind closed doors, higher up public figures involved with Indyconnect have agreed that private developers are more interested in the economic development opportunities along both the east and west side proposed Washington Street Light Rail line. Public sentiment also matches the will to extend light rail to the airport.
If planners decided that the Washington Street line offered more merits compared to the NE Corridor and chose to construct that alignment first, the completion of the NE Corridor EIS would not neccesarily mean that construction would need to immediately begin. When the EIS is finished and published, a Record of Decision (ROD) will be written. When this is decreed, it is lasting. There is no shelf life on an ROD.
There are likely to be many battles fought over this issue when the cards are on the table. I know personally, that there are already advocacy groups going against the NE Corridor as the first rail line to be constructed. From an enthusiasts point of view, rail offers some great, and lasting, economic development opportunities as well as long term economic vitality as an attractive amenity. It is seen as progressive and it departs from a long history of automobile centered policy decisions.
Editor’s note: Citizens can debate the merits of how far any of these lines should go and back it up with plenty of data as well. My hope is to keep this discussion to one alignment versus another for now.