Polarization: A division into two opposites. One could not find a better manifestation of this definition than the case of the Green Line, the proposed rapid transit line between Indy’s NE side and downtown. One might conclude the division is between those who think we shouldn’t build this line at all and those who do (although, that would be a great guess). No. What I describe are those who think that if we do build it, the vehicle mode should be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Light Rail Transit (LRT)
At the heart of this debate seems to be a disagreement over the associated costs and benefits of each mode. Boosters of the BRT idea seem to think that a drastic reduction in expenditures could be realized by building a two lane roadway for buses, instead of a single lane railway for some form of rail vehicle. Some even argue that less right of way would be taken up for the buses. Yet others still argue that a bus route can be changed to meet changing demand for rapid transit as time goes by.
Are these concerns valid? Is the BRT line cheaper? Would being able to move the line in later years prove to be an advantage over a more permanent mode such as rail? As it turns out, some of these concerns are valid.
According to figures obtained by Urban Indy, the BRT line IS cheaper to build when compared against the rail alternative. The hard values, as concluded by the MPO, come out to be $438 million for the rail project and $350 million for the BRT alternative. A detailed breakdown indicates however, that the differences aren’t where you might think they should be. For instance, a comparison of the actual operating way puts the BRT roadway at $117 million where the rail line is $87 million. Stations for the rail alternative are marginally more expensive at $26 million (vs $17M for BRT). The major differences in cost appear to be related to operating systems; the train operations come in at a considerably higher cost when compared to the buses. In addition, a new maintenance facility must be constructed to service the trains, whereas BRT buses could be maintained at existing IndyGo facilities. The last concern over right of way for BRT vs rail is also considered, with more land required to purchase to build the bus-way.
The remaining concerns however, are difficult to address. How is a value proposition generated if the conclusion is based on a possibility years down the road that demand could change? One opinion I have read suggests that perhaps in 20 years the heavy growth area in Indianapolis is on the west side (or south, etc…). In that case, how could a rail line shift to meet that demand when bus service could simply “move” to meet that demand? There is half truth to that scenario in that the buses could be redirected however, how to account for building another bus-way to the west side to match the same level of service to the northeast? Budget an additional $117 million 20 years from now for a new bus-way?
A significant draw to fixed guideway rapid transit is its ability to induce development in the neighborhoods surrounding the stations. There seems to be an argument brewing in the transit industry over which mode of transit has generated the most successful development. A recent report from the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) compared the differences between rail and BRT and their affect on TOD. In their report, 21 North American LRT & BRT systems were pitted against each other using a “BRT standard” to assess quality of service. Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s Healthline came out as a clear winner for return on investment ($114.5M of TOD investment per dollar of transit investment). Indeed, we have covered the success of Cleveland’s line many times here at Urban Indy and have promoted it’s design as a model for possible design of the Indy Connect Red Line or Blue Line.
However, comparisons to Cleveland’s BRT should not be drawn for the Green Line. A route more comparable is Los Angeles’ Orange Line; I covered this back in February & MPO planners have drawn this link as well. That makes sense in that both routes don’t necessarily connect large government or medical institutions but serve low to moderate density residential and job markets. In that regard, the Orange Line rated low in the moderate category of the ITDP report with a just $1.3M of TOD investment per dollar of transit investment; far lower than the Cleveland project.
This is not to say that if the Green Line were rail it would do any better. There are no comparable rail lines included in the ITDP report that the Green Line could even be compared to in terms of length and type of service that will be provided. The question of whether the Green Line, as a BRT mode, would succeed in drawing more TOD is still speculative. However, the MPO has assembled a number of TOD typologies surrounding possible stations along the corridor so whether the mode chosen is rail or BRT, a supportive land use strategy is waiting to be put to good use to support wherever the stations are platted. That in itself should be celebrated and counted on as a way of insuring that whichever mode is chosen will succeed as more than simply another mode of transporting people up and down the line.
In the end, the regional transportation council will have a lot of factors to consider when selecting the final mode of operation for this line. If cost is the last criteria, all other factors being equal, it becomes difficult to argue that rail is a superior option to BRT along this corridor. Further study will make this decision easier in the coming months.