Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Commuter Rail Proposed for Indianapolis

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.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

30 Responses to “Commuter Rail Proposed for Indianapolis”

  1. Anonymous says:

    OMG!!! How dare you not mention Louisville in your post. What a hater!


  2. Socrates#1fan says:

    Hmm I will admit I am surprised.

    I thought Indianapolis would shoot this down being the auto loving city it is.
    Which is sort of funny because at one point central Indiana had a public transportation that was the envy of the region. ROFL.
    I do have to disagree about oil prices, unless consumption drops rapidly(which is pretty much impossible.) it will only get higher.
    My dear friend the future of autos is not a bright one.
    Great post though. You seem VERY well educated in this area and seem to know QUIET a bit about public transportation!
    I often enjoy reading your posts!

  3. Peter C. says:

    While I can see how the “stars are aligning” politically for this project, I don’t exactly see how this answers all the difficulties you posed in your other post (zoning, traffic, buses being better, faster, cheaper, etc.) While I certainly like the idea of gleaming trains zooming through this fine city, even a modest 160 million dollar price tag doesn’t offer any relief for the gas dependent suburbs for years. I would love to be pleasantly surprised to find that this proposed rail system is superior to expanding bus access, I feel that for my friends in the Carmel/Fishers area will not see a benefit for quite a while and people like me in other suburbs will just watch all the options that $160 million offers sail past us. As I don’t pay Indianapolis taxes, I don’t exactly have a right to complain, but, as you have pointed out, this is a unique political window of opportunity to make something very big happen, and I’m sure it would be in Indianapolis’ greater interest not to leave out the rest of the “donut” burbs just outside 465.

    Sorry about the rambling… are there any resources which we could use to examine whether this is the best option money-wise, ridership-wise, time-wise, and inclusiveness-wise?


  4. Crocodileguy says:

    Indy should strongly consider streetcars like it used to have. No separate ROW necessary, no long construction timelines (1 block of track per week for Portland’s system), easy for all types of users to access, etc.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am so excited about this…I bet you could take up a collection plate in Indy and get the money to get this started…and to think they are saying they could get this up and running in 3-5 years.

    Additionaly, did you see the front page of the Star today? “The Luke” looks stunning…more stunning on the inside that the out sadly.

  6. Gary says:

    I disagree that diverting funds from highway projects is a bad one.
    mass transit is the future and here to stary for some time. My only problem with this is while the Northeast corridor is congested, this line would help those in least need. People in Fishers, Carml, Noblesville can handle the price of enegery far better than poorer areas of the city. So it tax dollars are invloved, which they certainly will be, the will be spen of providing a nice cormfortable ride to those who need it the least.

  7. Gary says:

    And, yes it blows my mind you would leave Louisville out of this post. LOL

  8. gary says:

    only kidding wasn’t it just recntly you posted about what a great mass transit system Louisville once had.

  9. Anonymous says:

    re: Gary @ 9:02

    Love the reverse elitism there, of course everyone in Fishers & Hamilton county have $1 million + homes & can afford anything. Do the facts that the proposed transit line would serve the fastest growing areas of the metro, would take vehicles off of the most congested roadways in the city, and use a line that is the cheapest option enter your decision making at all, or is transit really just a way of getting around for the poor?

    I would hope that, regardless of the funding source tapped for the train line, the lawmakers can tack on some extra funding to go to Indygo, which already serves the “poorer” areas of the city, but could do a better job with some extra cash & rearranged routes (more grid routing, less hub & spoke).

  10. Anonymous says:

    The people in Noblesville, Fishers and Hamilton County in general or anyone else for that matter can decide for themselves to have bus service to anywhere they want right now. They don’t have to wait for someone else to deliver a train to their doors. Any bus system created could be coordinated with Indy routes to permit connectivity. So, why aren’t the people in Hamilton County demanding that their elected officials provide transit if it is in such demand. The reality is that the demand is low. Just because a couple of hundred people ride a few buses doesn’t mean that there is some pent up demand for transit.

    Futhermore, for Indianapolis to even be considering spending any money on a seperate transit system for a some commuters in Fishers is ridiculous when no funding is now available to repair, extend and link the existing multi-modal transporation options. When Indygo has, just within the last year, provided signs identifying bus route stops (by number, and still has an innumerable amount of bus stops without bus stop pads and/or sidewalk links, it is criminal to even be discussing spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a train to carry a few thousand (if they are lucky) passengers while these other needs remain unmet.

    Frankly, if the people in Hamilton County are that concerned about the cost of their commute, they have the option of moving into many stable neighborhoods where they could make use of the existing bus system, walk and/or bike to work. They have a choice. A 160- million dollar train is a bailout for their poor choices.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I was at a meeting today where, in response to a question about his position on mass transit, Mayor Ballard said that when people moved to Fishers, “they knew it was a mess”. It brought applause.

    He expressed doubt about building the Hamilton County line first, asking “what about the airport”? He is privvy to the convention-driven visitor counts and downtown hotel room-night counts. It might just be that an airport line would daily serve far more people with less of a peaking issue.

    His mind is definitely not made up.

  12. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 6:23 – Thanks for the info

  13. SpeedBlue47 says:

    His mind shouldn’t be made up. Here’s the litmus test I would use for these projects: propose the project, lay out the obstacles, formulate the expected service level and level of environmental impact, and other goals and limitations, then do the unthinkable. Offer the ROW and existing track up for lease for say a nominal fee($1/annum) to a private company that will fulfill all of the above. The private company will be responsible for all capital and operating costs, and will get to keep any and all proceeds save the normal corporate income tax. Make it understand that it will be given no operating subsidies and that they will expected to have the line operating by a certain deadline and will be required to meet the above goals in a reasonable manner or be subject to a lose of their lease and therefore forfeit all property on the line(new tracks, stations, and rolling stock).

    Do that, and if no one bites, then you probably don’t have a winning project. If someone does, then great. You will have the private debt and equity markets working to refurbish the line, and decisions will be made to maximize line efficiency and increase margins. This will have a secondary benefit or increasing the energy and CO2 emission efficiency per passenger mile of the line.

    I do think though that WHEN the demand is truly there, if the city follows the above policy, you will see a very rapid build-up of transit systems in Indianapolis(and by demand I mean at least 3% of the population).

  14. David says:

    How dare you imply the free market is better able to judge if this project is economically feasible than the government! Blasphemy I say!

    All kidding aside, I think speedblue’s response is one of the most intelligent responses to mass transit I have heard. If there was money to made with mass transit then the private sector would be scrambling to get into this.

    People don’t like that answer though and will demand the government do it for the good of all Hoosiers. All they demand is that you forcibly give money to the project (in taxes).

  15. MikeW says:

    Even in the most dense cities where they have the best transit and the most riders using the system, in most cases it still doesn’t turn a profit or even break even without subsidies.

    No private company will take it on on their own. Thats why you have dozens of major cities with no mass transit. Now once the system is built, private companies can help maintain and run the stops along the way, but it won’t be a private company coming in and building it for us. That will never happen in a million years. Good idea, but won’t happen.

  16. Anonymous says:

    folks, don’t get to caught up in this whole, it must be feasible for private equity to do it for us to build and maintain it.

    1) we’d have no highways anywhere, no parks anywhere, and police/fire service. That’s what government is for. To the extent you believe that government should ONLY serve those who choose to drive cars and not have the option of effective mass transit, well, I guess we agree to disagree.

    2) mass rail transit is NEVER about it actually being ridden, it’s about the (source: Indy MPO presentation) $3- $5 that government gets back for every $1 spent in the form of increased property taxes (great subject here) and local economy boost from TOD along the route. I say, bring it on, let’s get some wonderful mixed use, dense TOD along the way (there’s your private investment) and have the OPTION to ride mass transit. Gas isn’t going back to $2 per gallon anytime soon, maybe never.

    I would be surprised if my fellow Hamilton-ites actually used it (maybe a little too “liberal” for them), but when you start talking about $$$ you never know, the burbs might pleasantly surprise us.

  17. indyjrob says:

    No love for me and my fellow Hamilton County commuters amongst you folks. While you might all think that every one of us is swimming in money that actually is not the case. Most of us live in Hamilton County because the school system is phenomenal and its a safe place to raise a family. Many of us work in and contribute to the success of Indianapolis.

    As gas prices have gone up many of us have embraced the Commuter Express and it has proven to be quite successful. Attitudes have shifted and it’s evident in everyone I speak to. Those who thought they would never ride a bus now relish the opportunity to read and socialize instead of drive.

    The tracks are there, along with a huge chunk of Indy’s work force. Therefore, it makes logical sense to start there. The airport also makes an immense amount of sense. The thing we should all push for is that something happens. Lets worry less about the first step but instead that a step is taken. Ultimately, it will improve the city we love (excluding the Ville folks who clearly don’t share our affection).

  18. CorrND says:

    I’ll start by saying that I’m pro-transit and I like this plan. I’m just worried about expectations.

    What kind of ridership can actually be expected on the NE commuter line? I believe I read that they plan to run the morning lines from 6 to 9am. If they have a train run every 15 minutes, that’s 13 runs. Capacity on the trains? Just a guess, but I’d say a DMU car probably carries around 50 people and there might be 5 to 10 cars in a train. Let’s go with the upper end and say each train will carry 500 people.

    13 * 500 = 6500 people

    Is that estimate reasonable? Even if I’m off by a factor of two, taking 13k cars off I69 in the morning will help, but it isn’t going to be a magic wand that fixes congestion (I don’t know the timing breakdown, but I69 sees something like 175k vehicles per day).

    I think a lot of people view transit as a magic bullet that will fix gas prices and congestion. Expectations need to be properly set.

  19. Gary says:

    Reverse elitism? Wow…I get it. We should give the people that don’t use mass transit now great mass (rail) transit first. Becuase they won’t ride the bus but, trust me they will ride the best (rail) mass transit. I guess the people that live in areas that already support and use mass transit now out of need (the bus) should just eat cake.

  20. thundermutt says:

    My pet peeve is that the plans initially released showed no stations south of 71st St.

    Please note that the neighborhood around the NKP line begins changing to a higher proportion of minority people south of 65th, and it probably becomes “majority-minority” by 52nd or 49th for the rest of the run.

    Even if it’s unintentional, such an exclusionary setup would be rightly perceived (even by some white middle-class people like me) as one that keeps “some people” off the train.

    That will NEVER fly; I’ll be leading the gang taking shots if someone tries.

  21. mordant says:

    I live in Hamilton County and would love to be able to take a train to and from work. However, I agree with another comment that the important thing is to do something to get started; Hamilton County can wait our turn as far as I’m concerned if, for example, a line to the airport (or other points) is deemed more important. I also agree that the lack of stations in minority-dominated areas is ridiculous.

    I like the idea of financing (or helping to finance) this thing by creating zones around the stations and devoting any increases in property tax revenue (due to increases in the value of surrounding properties) to the system that helped create the added value. That strikes me as a much more fair way of financing the project than a regional tax of the sort used to pay for the football stadium.

  22. Anonymous says:

    corrnd – In traffic engineering, a general assumption is that the busiest portions of the day see about 8-12% of the daily traffic. Assuming a high-end number (which would mean heavy peaks with lighter traffic during the day & night – like I69), you would expect somewhere between 15-21k cars per hour during the morning & evening rush hours, or 45-60k per 3hr timespan that the train would run. If the trains in your example were full (I know – big if), then you could conceivably reduce the traffic by 10%.

  23. thundermutt says:

    The IBJ ran an editorial favoring the NE Corridor train today.

    Interesting stat: 53,000 Hamilton County commuters to Marion County.

    My economist mind naturally ran to numbers. Let’s (conservatively?) assume $50K average wage per job for those 53,000 people. My calculator says that’s $2.65billion in wages.

    I do not know the exact county tax funding formula used by the state. One used to pay the higher rate (home county vs. work county), but how that was parceled out between the two counties, I don’t know. I assume the “work county” got something but not all.

    Imagine that Marion County got to keep 100% of its 1.65% wage tax on all those wages. That’s more than $43 million a year in tax revenue.

    So my economist minde imagined this, too: what if our TIF district law in Indiana included sales taxes and wage taxes? Or what if a separate “Transit TIF” (TTIF) district were created to take advantage of transit-oriented development?

    That might be the “innovative funding tool” needed to pay for the trains, streetcars, and upgraded bus system that we need here.

    First policymaker to publicize this idea gets the “Thundermutt Urban Economics Award”. :-)

  24. The Urbanophile says:

    Any number of states that have large amounts of out of town workers tax in the location where the job is. New York City is famous for this. Louisville, Kentucky also has various “occupational taxes”. Chicago has a “head tax” on jobs in the Loop.

    The problem is that for anyone that isn’t a guaranteed job magnet, taxing people for coming into your jurisdiction to work only encourages the jobs to go elsewhere. In fact, we’ve already seen the suburbanization of the job base. Over 50% of the proposed office space construction in the metro area is in Carmel.

    I believe a local option sales tax is the most common way to finance transit, at least operations. A regional tax might be viable if it involved funding to keep buses running to Greenwood, start them running to Hendricks County, etc. with a commitment to future rail line extension.

  25. thundermutt says:

    I think a regional sales tax would also have to pay to improve IndyGo. If it’s just for providing motorcoaches and trains from the donut counties, it would need to be a donut tax applied to the region outside Marion County.

  26. Anonymous says:

    This is ridiculous. The demand that a private company build and operate a rail line is absurd. If that is your expectation for a rail line then how is it that Denver and Salt Lake City, both autocentric, spread out metros, have had fabulous success in building a publicly financed light-rail system with plans to expand service in the future. SLC has a commuter rail line running to Ogden!!

    Obviously, those cities get it when it comes to mass transit, why are Indy;s residents so obtuse and out-of-touch when it comes to the future of public transportation?

    If by building a commuter rail line Indy is “rewarding” sprawl, then why no opposition to spending hundreds of millions of dollars improving the road infrastructure in the NE corridor?

  27. Anonymous says:

    Buses are only a part of the solution when it comes to mass transit. Rail gets people off roads, reducing congestion.

  28. Anonymous says:

    The discussion around the proposed light rail line is really interesting. It seems clear that there are numerous related issues under the surface of the light rail discussion:

    1. Auto congestion – many people seem to support or not support the light rail project on the basis of what perceived difference it will make to people who continue driving cars. I think proponents really are overselling the potential for congestion reduction in the suburbs. However, I haven’t seen many people talking about the potential for congestion reduction downtown. The system could make a very real impact here. Even if only a couple thousand downtown employees used it daily, think the of difference that would make on downtown congestion and parking. In the longer term with more lines, this could be one of the biggest impacts rail transit could make, reducing auto congestion and car parking downtown.

    2. Pollution – I have seen a lot of debate on whether light rail would have environmental benefits by substituting presumably more efficient transit trips for those in cars. There has been some discussion around diesel vs. electric trains and their relative merits. Pollution should be categorized into local and global impacts. For example, DMUs will emit particulate emissions perhaps at a greater rate than cars, but probably less CO2 per person. Electric trains would have zero local emissions from the vehicle but still are driven by coal-fired powerplants with global warming and regional pollution potential.

    3. Mobility – not a lot of people are talking about the potential for increased mobility. This is another big benefit of light rail transit with an independent right-of-way. Travel times to places by transit are independent of what is happening on the roads, thus helping to maintain or increase mobility for people served by the line. Don’t forget that not everyone can drive. Transit helps improve the mobility for the young, old, poor and disabled, although these benefits are not specific to light rail.

    4. Cost – this debate seems to be framed in terms of how it directly affects the individual. People who perceive they can save gas money by switching to transit, others believe they will be paying higher taxes for something they won’t use. There is also a vocal group of people who believe the whole venture is fine as long as it can be funded by private investment. Unfortunately the only number I have seen is the capital cost figure of $160MM. We really need more info on operational costs to determine how good of an investment this is in the long-term.

    5. Land use – many people like light rail because they like transit oriented developments or believe it will support a more vibrant downtown. These could be benefits of light rail but will depend largely on coordinated efforts by a number of agencies.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Why doesn’t or should I say hasn’t Hamilton County already put any kind of transit service in place? Johnson County did years ago. It directly feeds into the Indygo system.

    Now that we are talking about rail transit all the people in Hamilton County think they should get it.

  30. mattmcc says:

    Time to move ahead in Naptown with rail-based transit. The ex-Conrail route (nee-NYC) to Terre Haute to the west and Muncie to the east is an ideal addition to the Noblesville/Tipton line. Indy has an idea hub-spoke set up and could have a myriad of intermediate stops and make Indianapolis' dowtown vibrant all the time. Also, the ex-PRR route goes sooooo close the the airport that DMUs to/from the airport is a no-brainer. Gas is back above $3 and it is NOT going to get cheaper and is running out faster than anticipated (see Nat' Geo-2004-"The End of Cheap Oil). Transit is a quality of life issue and reduces congestion and wait times and improves productivity and connectivity.

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