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Public transportation entities in Indianapolis region might be reorganized

October 24, 2009

For advocates of commuter rail and expanded bus service in the region, there’s only one acronym that matters: ASAP.

But confronting the complexity of delivering better transit, bureaucrats and consultants are about to study whether another acronym may be needed to get it rolling.

That acronym could come courtesy of a reorganization of local transit entities, a move being studied that could expedite transit development by prying loose funding and better coordinating the delivery of service by several city and rural bus systems in the metro area.

“Is the way we’re doing it the best business model for delivering a coordinated transportation system? If not, what is?” said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority.

CIRTA, formed in 2007, is better known as the group charged with studying and implementing the city’s first commuter rail line since the 1930s.

It hopes to have a diesel light rail line running on the old Nickel Plate line between downtown and 146th Street by the middle of the next decade. It’s likely to cost at least $600 million, if money can be found. CIRTA also oversees a regional carpooling and vanpooling program, Central Indiana Commuter Services.

CIRTA recently tapped Massachusetts-based Cambridge Systematics to conduct an organizational structure study. It will examine how other cities structured their transit organizations. Some put them all under one umbrella while others married the planning and development functions of transit systems with their city’s regional planning agency.

In the Indianapolis area, there are numerous distinct transit organizations, including 10 rural bus or van system providers and Marion County’s IndyGo bus system. Then there are government organizations such as the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally mandated group that for decades has studied commuter rail options.

“My guess is that we have to do some evolving and changing to get to the final construct” for the metro area, Bingaman said.

Nashville recently moved to its city bus system the management of its commuter rail line serving its eastern suburbs. It had been managed by that city’s regional planning agency.

San Diego in 2003 consolidated its regional transit and transportation planning. The San Diego Association of Governments took over planning from the area’s 18 cities and its county government. The agency handles funding and construction of capital projects, leaving existing transit agencies responsible solely for running day-to-day operations.

Last year, members of the Indianapolis and Anderson metropolitan planning agencies paid a visit to San Diego to get ideas.

A summary of that visit prepared by San Diego officials stated that “CIRTA’s jurisdiction overlaps those of both Indianapolis and Anderson and adds another segregated layer of planning and oversight for transportation projects and services in central Indiana.”

It added that “staff from the Indianapolis and Anderson MPOs are wondering if a similar consolidation of their agencies with CIRTA could help to unify and strengthen planning and development efforts in central Indiana as well.”

But whether political structure like that of San Diego could even be done here is a matter of debate, said Christine Altman, president of the CIRTA board. Altman said she wants Cambridge, the consultant, to bring back a variety of options based on what organizational structures worked and didn’t work in other cities.•

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