The study group looking into transit investments for the Indianapolis region has issued a recommendation to start with a commuter rail line from downtown to Noblesville in the northeast corridor. The Star summarizes the approach [dead link], while is still somewhat undefined. The leading candidate appears to be a single-tracked, commuter system operating one way at peak periods only. This would operate between 146th St. and Union Station using the existing Nickel Plate tracks currently owned by the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority and currently used by the annual Fair Train. The leading candidate for a technology solution is DMU, or diesel multiple units. These are rail cars that are self-propelled with internal diesel-electric motors as opposed to traditional rail technology that features a locomotive pulling several unpowered passenger coaches.
The price tag of the starter route is $160 million. Eventually, a full buildout with electrification, more stations, and double tracking, the price would reach $690 million. There could be up to seven or so additional lines added. The Star has editorialized in favor [dead link] of this program.
Readers of this blog know that I’m generally skeptical of rail transit programs in places like Indianapolis. However, as rail proposals go, this one has a lot going for it. For example, it has followed my preferred approach of starting small, first with a bus system, then proceeding to a basic rail line, then only adding mega-expensive service as demand warrants over time. Should the community wish to invest in this rail program, this is one I could be in favor of.
There have been tons of rail studies in various cities over the year, most of which have led nowhere. Among Indy sized cities in the region, none of them actually has rail. Kansas City approved it by ballot, but nothing is going on there yet. If you go south to Nashville, there is a commuter line in place. This one would be conceptually similar to that if implemented.
In the Indy case, lagging behind cities like Cincinnati and Columbus in the rail planning game is probably a good thing. Those cities went to funding ballots some years back, and both were voted down. But the situation is very different today. In fact, the stars appear to be optimally aligning for rail transit in Indy. This is probably the best shot the city will ever have to get something off the ground. It is difficult to believe the conditions will be this ripe again for quite some time. Some of the things that have lined up include:
- The proposal is for a starter system with, as these things go, a modest cost of $160 million. This is less than what was spent on Conseco Fieldhouse, and far less than the cost of either Lucas Oil Stadium or the new airport terminal. It is not an over-bloated mega-project.
- The environmental studies are largely complete and things like the ridership forecast have been approved by the feds. This is a long lead time item.
- The line is already owned by local government
- $4 gas is here. I don’t believe it will be a permanent thing, but it will last long enough to let the decision on this get past the critical window.
- The election is this year, and so when the region goes to the General Assembly asking for money next year, it won’t have the fear of an immediately pending election to strike fear into the hearts of legislators considering a dedicated transit tax.
- Most importantly, the bus service that is in place right now has been well-patronized and in fact you can’t get a seat on many runs. This provides an immediate, tangible example of how a high quality transit service can be very popular in the right situation. It’s a big psychological and marketing boost to the system.
- With potentially only three years to get a system up and running, this system could be complete in time to serve as a key alternate route during INDOT’s I-465 northeast corridor reconstruction project.
Hearings will be upcoming to obtain public feedback. As with many things, I expect a significant bifurcation of opinion.
The key in my view is whether or not Mayor Ballard gets on board with the plan and decides to strongly sponsor it. If he does, I would expect the leadership community of Indianapolis to unite behind it. I’ve noted before that when Indianapolis makes a decision, the decision is made and people close ranks behind it. This has its downside in that some projects don’t receive enough of the needed scrutiny that could have improved them. But on the plus side this means that once the die is cast, the project is more likely to get done there than almost anywhere else. A major civic project that gets the green light in Indy is far more likely to come to fruition than it is in other places. In a sense, this is very much running a city and community like a business. In my day job, we argue fiercely around the table about what we ought to do in various situations, but once the decision is made, everyone is expected to be on board, even if they weren’t in agreement with it originally. This approach is in the right context a huge strength of Indianapolis.
The real challenge is, of course, funding. There are three possible sources: federal, state, and local. I would not count on any federal or state funding. Federal funding is in extremely tight supply these days. Though on the plus side, Indy would not be asking for that much. To get the feds to help would require Lugar, Bayh, Carson, and Burton to basically all take a united front in making it a top priority. I would suggest penciling in a planning assumption of zero.
As for state funding, there are currently no state sources available. The idea of diverting funds from northeast corridor road improvements is a bad one. Those improvements are absolutely critical. What’s more, fixing that corridor has national economic significance because of the freight movements. Transit in Indianapolis is primarily of local concern, and no matter what the patronage on the commuter system, it is unlikely to materially reduce the need to expand highways. As I’ve long noted, highways and transit are poor substitutes for each other. INDOT should not shift funds from highway to commuter rail. On the other hand, it should be sure to stay clear and not get in the way of the program or add red tape. Perhaps some limited INDOT funding could be added to purchase incremental train sets to handle the non-recurring loads that will be needed during the highway construction project.
This leaves local funding. However, in Indiana, there are no revenue streams for transit apart from some limited property taxes that probably can’t be taxed. Typically transit systems get funded by some sort of regional local option sales or income tax. This would require legislation from the General Assembly, which is where I see the complications. Previous local initiatives such as Indy Works have died there because of various local disputes, and it is the nature of legislative bodies that proposals that having nothing to do with each other get linked somehow, usually to the detriment of all of them. Clearly, the public is in no mood for new taxes either.
To get this through the General Assembly requires creating a local consensus so that the entire regional caucus is behind it. This probably means funding initially restricted to Marion and Hamilton County. Local officials also have to take the lead and the heat for selling this to the public.
I see getting local funding approved as the biggest barrier, assuming Mayor Ballard is on board.
Beyond this, there are a lot of specifics to be determined. For example, if DMU cars are selected, there is a question as to whether they should be FRA compliant or non-FRA compliant. The different is that FRA compliant cars can be run on shared trackage with freight trains. Non-compliant cars can’t. The US has very strict safety rules on rail, much more stringent than Europe, resulting in much heavier, slower, and less energy efficient systems. (It is the same with cars). Ideally a non-compliant system could be used, but I don’t know if that’s feasible. For example, the Nickel Plate does not have its own direct connection to Union Station. Rather, it would have to use the CSX mainline tracks. Presumably the Port Authority inherited trackage rights along with the rail line itself. This is the sort of thing that will need to be sorted out.
Stay tuned. I would expect this matter to be resolved one way or the other by this time next year, once the legislative session is over.