Wednesday, October 1st, 2008
As a follow-up to some of the discussion around my ideas for improving public transit in Indianapolis, here are some additional thoughts.
I see today that IndyGo is considering putting a downtown transfer center on the MSA site. They are looking to hire a consultant to study this idea. It is premature to be looking at this given the unsettled state of public transit in Indy. IndyGo itself is under an interim leader. The fate of a future rail system to the northeast corridor is yet to be decided. There are very serious questions that need to be asked. For example, does it make sense to have CIRTA, IndyGo, and several rural transit systems each operating independently? The experience of other cities would suggest this is a mistake. Chicago, for example, has its city transit system (the CTA), its suburban commuter rail system (Metra) and its suburban bus system (Pace). These lack integrated routes, transfers, and fare structures, something widely viewed as a problem. Does not a single, integrated transit system make more sense for Indy? Also, is the downtown transfer model the future of IndyGo? The current go to downtown to transfer model today is frequently cited as a weakness of the system. What are the possibilities for beefing up bus service in Indy and is a transfer center part of that? Is this the highest and best use of the MSA site? I’ve long argued that there is no hurry to fill up vacant lots with structures just to build something. The MSA site is simply the most critical area in downtown Indy today. It is a dead zone between the Wholesale District and Mass Ave. activity centers. Something is needed there to really bridge the gap with a 24 hour development. Transit could be that, especially if properly integrated into an overall development, but it could also end up as a huge negative for the area. Doing the wrong thing there just because the city is in a hurry to do something with those lots could hurt the area for years to come.
Clearly, what is needed is a major strategic rethink of transit regionally. Then investments can be made to bring that to reality. I see mostly piecemeal plans like the northeast corridor line, this transit center, etc. There isn’t an integrated, holistic vision. That is what is needed before making major capital investment decisions.
One thing I have been surprised by is how many people have viewed the proposed northeast corridor commuter line as a “subsidy to sprawl”. More than one person has told me that they think the people in Fishers and Noblesville knew what they were getting into with I-69 traffic. Why, this logic goes, should the city make it easier for people to leave Marion County? Rather, why not focus on improving transit for the city first? Well, I agree with this to an extent. The city transit system definitely needs to be improved. But I think that’s a matter of “and” not “or”. In the short term, I agree a commuter line helps suburban commuters more than downtown dwellers.
But there’s a long run effect to consider. What transit links between the suburbs and downtown do is to bind the city and its surroundings together. They help the region cohere. While it might seem bad today to think of many downtown workers moving to Fishers, try imagining Fishers, soon to be a suburb of 120,000 people, without any downtown workers there, without anyone who has a direct stake in the success of downtown Indy. This would create two communities with less common interest and less of a common bond than today. When suburbanites are regularly in downtown Indy, that’s good for downtown. It’s good for downtown business, and it helps keep everyone in the region wanting the core to be healthy. This is why the city wants it to be easy and cheap to park and get in and out of downtown. It knows that making it convenient for workers and visitors makes it a more attractive business location, which feeds the residential demand, etc. and makes people care about the city. Ask the mayors of New York and Philadelphia if they think suburban commuter rail is good or bad for their city. I think they’d say it was a clear positive on the whole.
The difference between the long run and the short run is something to consider in other areas too. I suggested that good bus service on College Ave. and to Fountain Square could help change the game. And it would. But this wouldn’t be an overnight thing. $4 gas didn’t make everyone suddenly trade in their SUV’s for Priuses. People have loans on those SUV’s and are upside on them. Changing behaviors such as what car you own, what house you are in, where and how you get to work, do your shopping, etc. is a slow process. There is a long lead time to develop substitutes and alternate ways of doing things. Building a transit oriented culture in Indiana is not easy, and will require sustained commitment over time. There isn’t going to be overnight success.
Lastly, to change the game in Indianapolis transit is going to take an influsion of new talent at the transit agencies. That’s not to say the current employees are doing a bad job. Far from it. I happen to think, for example, that Gilbert Holmes was a good public servant who accomplished the mission he was given and did his best to play a pretty tough hand of cards. It’s nobody’s fault at IndyGo that the city has not valued transit to the point of funding a better bus system.
However, as the region looks to make significant new transit investments, potentially including rail, it is going to take additional resources with new skills and experiences to really make that transformation. New challenges and new situations require a different talent mix. Since Indy has never had, in modern times, a rail system or a high frequency bus system, I think it is fair to say almost no one in the current environment has experience with either. This means outsiders who do have that experience should be brought into key leadership positions. It also means that local transit agencies will also need to pay more for key roles than in the past. Indianapolis and Indiana have traditionally had very low pay for public officials, relying on a public service ethos among local residents who want to help build the community. However, this won’t be sufficient for recruiting outsiders, something that was previous noted when the city was evaluating a nationwide search for a new police chief. To have a top national transit system, the city has to be willing to pay to bring in the top talent to help run it in addition to just putting out the capital funds to build it in the first place. To give some perspective on this, the president of the Chicago Transit Authority is paid about $200,000/year. An Indy chief probably doesn’t need that much since it would be a smaller system, but the Indy job itself is arguably harder in key respects such as selling the public on the need for transit and convincing them to ride it. Perhaps a better comparison point: the head of Louisville’s bus agency makes $170,000/year.