It has been quite some time since I, or anybody else here at Urban Indy, has written about the NE Corridor or as it is referred to now by Indy Connect, The Green Line. As of this writing, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is being constructed by HNTB, under contract through the MPO.
With the progress of HB1011 at the Indiana Statehouse, mass transit is beginning to get a lot of attention in Central Indiana. The Green Line is the rapid transit project furthest down the rabbit hole of the three currently under study; it is also the most controversial. Originally announced, the line would be a 23 mile long rail line from Noblesville to Downtown Indy using some form of light rail vehicle. Urbanists, and many readers of this blog, question why this is the first line being studied for implementation. Suburbanites question whether this line will be rail or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Politicians question whether this line should even be included in the long range plan due to it’s higher capital outlay compared to the other potential rapid transit lines in the system.
Additionally, with the announcement of the IndyGo Downtown Transit Center, to be located across the street from the City County Building, people have begun to question whether the line should terminate at Union Station, as originally scoped, or whether it should divert to the future location of the transit center at Washington & Delaware Street.
Why do we need the Green Line? Is it a political ploy to get Hamilton County on board with a regional transit authority? Is it to solve congestion in the NE corridor of the region? The line will arguably be hard pressed to provide congestion relief to I-69 and Binford Boulevard. With a daily trip count well over 100k in the I-69 corridor, the level of frequency needed to relieve that would be intense, and thus costly. With the future line scoped to have 15 minute headways, congestion relief seems like a tall mountain to tackle. However, for those wishing to take advantage of the service, a great deal of value could be provided. If this line were to be rail, and based on an analysis that includes a limit of 9 to 11 total stations along the route, a comparative travel time can be achieved for someone travelling from Noblesville to downtown Indianapolis. This could significantly reduce the amount of gasoline consumed by automobile on a comparative trip. Due to the lack of a direct freeway link between I-69 and downtown Indy, the Green Line could serve as a competitive alternative to travelling by car.
Second, there are numerous neighborhood redevelopment opportunities along this line. It could be generalized that fixed guide-way transit usually induces neighborhood redevelopment around station areas. Whether its rail transit or BRT, the fixed guideway should raise the propensity to draw investment. This bodes well for areas south of 52nd street where study is already underway to take advantage of future rapid transit service. The Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood has already established a plan based on a station one day being located in the heart of their neighborhood. Additionally, King-Park, in cooperation with LISC, has kicked off an 18 month quality of life study from 52nd street southward identifying opportunities for neighborhoods along the line to take advantage of the future service.
Will this service be rail or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)? Does it matter? When examining the cost of the rail line, approximately $600-$700 million for the full 23 mile build out, it could be said that BRT could be done cheaper; perhaps $100 to $200 million cheaper. Take into account the lack of a costly maintenance facility, as well as buses being cheaper than trains, and a more frequent service is also likely achievable.
I think the bigger question with regard to mode is, how would buses be received along this line? People in general consider trains to be a premium transit offering due in part to it’s smooth ride, progressive image and general success in attracting riders. Over the past couple of years, numerous comments have surfaced on this site advocating that instead of rail along the Green Line, that BRT be implemented and the current Red & Blue lines instead, be switched to rail transit. Indeed, if one examines where current IndyGo ridership is highest, it is along Washington Street, where the Blue Line is currently under study.
The only domestic comparison to BRT along the NE Corridor, is the Orange Line in Los Angeles. With a daily ridership level north of 22,000 boardings, this line serves a similar market to Indianapolis; the San Fernando Valley of North Los Angeles. Itself a community of over a million people, and comprised mainly of single family dwellings and small to mid-rise apartment complexes, the Valley is a comparative market to Indianapolis. There, the Orange Line serves a critical rapid transit need in moving residents to a connection with the Metro rail lines which branch out in the greater Los Angeles basin. The Orange Line provides value in it’s frequent service, dedicated right of way and premium built form with state of the art stations, off-board fare collection and differentiated, articulated vehicles. To be sure, if 22,000 boardings per day could be realized on the Green Line in Indy, it would be considered an overwhelming success story for a conservative Midwest market. For the success that a similar automobile oriented market has achieved elsewhere, a valid case can be made based on ridership success, for BRT along this corridor.
Something which hasn’t received a lot of focus, is how the line will terminate downtown. The original scope of the project spelled out that the line would use Union Station downtown as the terminating station. The only other downtown station would likely be 10th street and it can be argued that this would be perceived as a value trade off due to it’s remote location and need for a transfer to reach the downtown job centers. Certainly though, there are efficiencies that can be realized by diverting the original line at 10th street, dedicating lanes solely to the vehicle, whether it be train or bus, and routing it through the downtown area closer to the job centers; the original scope would have a train travelling on CSX tracks south of 10th street. As you can see to the left, and using data provided by the Longitudinal Employer Household Dynamic website, a downtown routing would better serve jobs and create more value for potential commuters; if roadway can be secured to solely and rapidly route trains or buses through the downtown footprint.
Take one look at jobs in Central Indiana, and it doesn’t take long to observe the decentralized geography of their clustering. The primary concentration of jobs is in the core of downtown Indianapolis. Outside of that though, it becomes difficult to lobby for another pocket being the most dense and that it should become the focus of intense rapid transit. Data often cites the US31 corridor in Carmel as the second most dense concentration and certainly that is true, but one visit and it becomes obvious that the current built form makes transit service difficult to provide. Large surface parking lots surround all the office buildings in this corridor so at best, one can only get 1/8 to 1/4 mile from the front door of these massive office buildings. That alone creates a planning conundrum in determining how rapid transit can serve this market in a way that makes it desirable over private use automobiles. Making a case for the Green Line then, one can surely point out the large number of automobile trips as a primary market that could be served by Green Line service. This would also peg most of those outlying stations as likely park and ride locations with the same impediments to urbanization around them as described with the US31 office buildings. However, the urban core terminating locations could efficiently shuttle workers to jobs.
Should planners be emphasizing this line over others in the Indy Connect plan? Urban Indy will not solve that question, but we instead hope to shape how people perceive the value of this line moving forward. Certainly there will be valid arguments from all sides. Should we boost our city’s image by building a rail line and joining the class of cities that have chosen a progressive mode of transportation? Should we instead focus on a world class BRT system that would rival the Orange Line (Los Angeles) or some other dedicated guideway systems? Should we even be constructing a rapid transit line on this corridor at all? Stay tuned as 2013 promises to flesh out many of these questions for residents to decide the answers to. For more info on the Indy Connect plan, visit www.indyconnect.org