The Indyconnect proposal that is currently on the table makes no rail transit proposal for Carmel. Carmel is Indy’s largest and seemingly most prosperous suburb and has been making strides in recent years to tackle it’s long term suburban built form. These change have come in the form of a revitalized downtown arts district with a more dense built form as well as the recently completed City Center complex which is flanked by the Paladium, a large world class performing arts center. Carmel is rapidly adding citizens to it’s tax base which is also relatively low. Cycling has gotten a big boost with the large amount of off street trails mixed with some on street bike lanes. Indeed, Carmel is considered a bike friendly city. Carmel is also home to the Indy region’s 2nd largest concentration of jobs located along the US31 corridor on what could loosely be described as Carmel’s west side.
When Indyconnect’s final plan was adopted (short of funding for the time being), there was protest from Carmel’s Mayor Jim Brainard about the lack of rail transit serving Carmel. Indeed, with all the improvements going on in Carmel it stands to reason that their community would want a piece of the rail pie in the region. The logic makes sense too. The 2nd largest job concentration center in the region paired with the revitalized downtown area makes for a 1-2 punch of jobs & activity centers that could potentially be served with high quality rapid transit. Carmel was even first to the plate in revealing a circulator system for it’s town with a study that highlighted the need for what would start as a rubber-tire based trolley system that could later be replaced with rail streetcars. I reported on this study many moons ago and it generated a lot of buzz for & against. What it tells me is that people are passionate about this topic and it has some real teeth. The aforementioned circulator report also alluded to a regional rail connection that would thread through the north side of Indy to downtown via Broad Ripple along the way. I have already covered why Broad Ripple light rail to downtown should be the 1st rapid transit rail line in Indianapolis and backed it with job & activity center data to support my claims.
So why wasn’t Carmel included in rail discussion? If we were to opine about how the Broad Ripple route could interface with a Carmel route, what would it look like, and would it even be worth considering? I have drawn a map (see above) using data generated using data from the LEHD (longitudinal employer-household dynamics) website which is fed via US Census data. I have included a couple of potential ways in which it could trave l from my previous Broad Ripple light rail study to Carmel’s US31 job center. In my opinion, rail transit to Carmel has a lot of merit and I will attempt to explain why. I touched on this topic in a former post titled, “Why Route Matters“. At the heart, it makes sense to serve Carmel for the same reasons as it does to serve Broad Ripple. At the core, Carmel has become a job & activity center. These are probably the two largest reasons and form the basis for a strong argument in support of rail.
One of the paradigms that American cities have to consider today, is the reverse commute. That is, the commute that city residents make to the suburbs for jobs every day. Serving suburban job centers is a difficult issue for regional transit based in part to their low density built form. It simply makes less sense to spend our scarce transportation dollars serving areas which offer small return on investment and in which a lot of the people simply do not want to ride a bus or a train. The aforementioned US31 job center however, makes Carmel an attractive destination for providing rail transit. One look at Google maps shows us the large glut of parking lots that these job centers attract and the automobile activity that accompanies these needs.
Indeed, we here at Urban Indy have been critical of an INDOT project currently underway to try and mitigate this which is coming in the form of the conversion of US31 from an urban highway to a full on limited access highway (freeway) that INDOT claims would open up the existing choke points. Converting a road to a freeway is simply one method that state DOT’s attempt to alleviate congestion. Will it actually cut down on idling car traffic and congestion? How many more people will use this freeway once it is completed? With little done to the surrounding surface streets to support the potentially increased capacity, will the problem actually be solved? Will Carmel be left to figure out what to do with this land in 20 years because new development is occurring 20 miles north? This is obviously one point of view, but the recent Census findings support the notion that people keep driving further to reach cheaper land at the expense of wear and tear on their cars and a larger budget for gasoline; and municipalities left to figure out what to do with the land. Indianapolis recently pledged to tear down over 2000 homes (at taxpayer expense) left vacant to the prior generation of suburban sprawl which has left these neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment. Will Carmel have to deal with this in 20 years itself?
I have not covered this topic in it’s entirety. I have not covered transit supportive land uses of which there are very few in the entire Indianapolis region right now. I have also not covered zoning changes, or exactly how light rail would be built; on existing roads or on the sides or medians. Could rail transit help to stem the sprawl paradigm? Probably not entirely. However, what it does do is provide focused transportation options to an area that currently experiences high levels of auto congestion, would eliminate a measurable percentage of vehicle emissions and would also provide cheaper transportation options to those willing to use it to get to jobs. In addition to this, land-use planning could be brought to bare and Carmel could fully embrace what has already started there which is a more urban built form. Furthermore, should a circulator system come to fruition in Carmel, it could be used to funnel lunch time workers or visitors to the downtown arts district or City Center providing an efficient, supportive, non-road clogging means with which to move people in and out of town. Carmel has displayed that it is working towards these goals. Rail transit makes sense for this region.