When Indyconnect released their latest revised plan, “light rail” was gutted from the 25 year vision and “commuter rail” routes previously slated for the NE and S corridors, were lengthened from their originally proposed routes. The basis for the removal of light rail wasn’t against the merits of commuter rail over light rail; it was for the geographic location in which each potential mode was planned to be routed and the associated costs with constructing in those locations. Not the mode itself. Property acquisition aside, traditional tie & ballast construction is cheaper than rail in a roadway as the proposed light rail lines are shown. There are also less political battles that need to be fought to secure right of way for the trains when routed where the commuter lines are planned; since they follow either existing or abandoned freight lines. However, those routes give up a lot for this relative ease of construction. Geographic proximity to the population, employment and activity centers of the region are not optimum when compared to the routes of the proposed light rail lines.
See this map? This was taken from the Indianpolis MPO long range transit vision document. We can clearly see two light rail routes that have been envisioned. One that runs east/west along Washington Street and another that runs north/south from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis via the existing thrufare streets of College, Capitol & Illinois, and Madison. These light rail routes easily offer superior access to the population, employment and activity centers in the Marion County area. Suffice to say, our planners know this, and that is why the potential routes are located along existing city streets. Most of the streets are already wide, and could accomodate losing a traffic lane for some sort of rail.
Indianapolis Job Centers
In looking at the employment centers of Indianapolis, I employed the LEHD (longitudinal employer-household dynamics) website which is supplied using 2008 Census Data. The map below, shows the distribution of job centers around the Indianapolis area. I have overlayed the two proposed light rail lines, as well as the NE Corridor commuter line. For all intents & purposes, the South Commuter line follows the southeast pointing leg of the south light rail line and continues from there. Aside from some employment centers on Keystone Ave near 46th street which the commuter line provides great access to, the light rail lines clearly offer superior access to jobs around the city; which is really what this is about. Economic development is stirred via jobs and to a lesser extent, activity centers. This is true from nearly every perspective that a transit agency can offer service from social justice to attracting choice riders. The N/S light rail route in particular provides easy walking distance from any point on it’s route to the vast majority of jobs in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis MSA (regional) Job Centers
This map shows the entire Indianapolis MSA. I have also highlighted the same potential routes on this map as the first one. With this map, we get a great sense of jobs distribution around the region. We can see that there are some jobs further out along the commuter route in the Fishers/Noblesville region. These places look to be well served by the commuter route if you are a resident of Indianapolis working there and need to reverse-commute. However, if we accept that a commuter route’s reason for existing is providing rapid service (vs. single occupant automobiles) for those living in suburbs to the urban cores, rhetorically speaking, is the commuter route’s existence supporting this? Serving suburban job centers is a REAL problem for modern transportation planners of all disciplines; highway or transit. Additionally, if you consider the MSA map, the area represented by US31/465 justifiably has an argument for having some sort of rapid rail service. This point was echod by Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel who recently complained that there was not enough rail in the plan.
It’s clearly obvious which routes offer the best potential for high ridership numbers. Simply looking at data points on a map and plotting transit routes through the dense city population where the job centers and activity centers are, the decision is a no-brainer. Job’s aside, visiting the Indianapolis neighborhoods of Midtown, Irvington or Broad Ripple, one gets a sense that these are where the people of Indianapolis want to be. These are the neighborhoods where people are getting out and going places, and thus, activity centers have justification for service. One may be able to justify some visits to the Fishers town center area or perhaps Greenwood via the commuter routes, but the destinations in Indianapolis that I have highlighted provide a sense of place head and shoulders over the suburban points; at least in this writer’s opinion. At this point, it would be easy to simply say, “Why aren’t we building light rail instead of the commuter rail?” A lot of people, myself included, often fall into this argument from the jump off and forsake all logic for the dream of hopping on a light rail train from a sidewalk in Broad Ripple and riding it downtown. It is worth noting that the Indyconnect plan recommends Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) following both the N/S & Washington Street light rail routes. However, is this mode of transportation worthy of drawing as many people as light rail? I intend to fully lay out why we think this way, in my next post titled, “Why Mode Matters for Indianapolis”. In the meantime, I hope that I have provided some reasons why we think the way we do regarding light rail vs commuter rail vs BRT
One last thought on the routes chosen for commuter rail. Should we continue to incentivize suburban interest by first choosing routes that serve these communities? A quick glance at the 2010 Census survey (below) shows how population shift has occured over the past 10 years. Blue indicates a positive shift while red indicates a negative shift. It is clear where people are voting with their feet in terms of where they want to live. Is this a result of cheap property? Or is it part of our land-use and transportation policy making it difficult to live in the urban core? You can see from the map above, based upon 2007 Census estimates, the population densities still favor the inner core of Marion County. However, continuing to provide options for citizens that promote suburban living will only weaken the core of our region as time goes on. Planners tell us today that it costs to much to invest in the light rail routes. I say it costs too much NOT to. THIS is why route matters for Indianapolis.