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Rapid-transit plans gain speed, but drivers might not give up keys

July 10, 2006

Just 5,900 Marion and Hamilton County commuters would park their cars in favor of rapid transit if that were an option, according to data from a late-2001 report for Indianapolis' Metropolitan Planning Organization by New York consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

That's a lot of cars gathering dust, to be sure, but it represents less than 10 percent of the 62,000 commuters who now travel between Marion and Hamilton counties for work each day.

That may be enough, said Paul Larrousse, director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University.

"One in 10 is probably a good start, and something that could be built on," he said.

This train of thought appears to have left the station, in any event.

"We can't continue to build our way out of congestion," asserted MPO Manager Mike Dearing, who has been studying the issue for years. "We're running out of land to expand highways."

Dearing's team expects to release updated rider estimates by fall and share them in public meetings in September. The MPO could apply for federal funding for the project next year if the Indianapolis Regional Transportation Council gives a green light to plans for the northeast corridor.

Still, it appears not everyone is sold on the massive expenditures necessary to launch a rail system or dedicated road for buses-the rapid-transit options local planners are contemplating.

Fishers resident Mike Kole recalls doing a double take at similar ridership projections he saw at an MPO meeting several months ago.

"I was surprised at how impassive the reactions were to the numbers," said Kole, also a Libertarian candidate for secretary of state. "I was astonished. If we buy all this infrastructure, we're going to be stuck with it for a long time."

UCLA professor Peter Gordon isn't surprised.

In other cities with new rail systems, at best 35 percent to 40 percent of passengers come from private autos--and many of them had been carpooling. Most are former bus riders whose routes were affected by the rail service, he said.

"Rail transit is a big waste today, but politicians love it as a jobs program that environmentalists support," said Gordon, who teaches at the university's School of Policy, Planning and Development and has studied the economics of some of the nation's rapid transit systems.

That's not the only reason for political support, said Randal O'Toole, senior economist at the Bandon, Ore.-based Thoreau Institute, an environmentally focused government watchdog.

Unlike federal highway funding, which is based partly on population and road miles, urban mass-transit projects tend to be funded based on which ones are most expensive, O'Toole said.

"Why do cities like Indianapolis want rail transit? Pork," he asserted. "Almost every city has realized that it is 'losing its share' of federal pork by not building rail transit. [It] makes sense if Indianapolis' goal is to spend a lot of money and it does not care what happens to transit ridership."

Historical precedent

Critics need only look at central Indiana's past to make a case against the economics and public demand for rapid transit.

A century ago, the region's so-called interurban lines made up one of the nation's most extensive electric rail networks, with about 1 million passengers moving through the Indianapolis Traction Terminal each year.

Then came competition from buses, an alternative that costs less to operate and maintain. But the knockout blow was the automobile, which afforded travelers freedom from regimented transit schedules as the state went on a road-building binge.

Still, rapid-transit proponents say things are different some 60 years after the last regularly scheduled interurban car rolled out of Indianapolis.

The most obvious: Systems don't have to be profitable because federal and local governments bail them out with billions upon billions in taxpayer subsidies.

And potential passengers may be more motivated to park and ride these days, with gas prices rising, commute times increasing, and pollution pushing federal officials to warn about possible mandatory emissions testing and other punitive measures.

"Transit can be implemented for a variety of reasons--not just to relieve congestion," said Amy Inman, senior MPO planner working on the rapid-transit program.

But traffic is a big reason. The average Indianapolis highway commuter spends more than 38 hours a year in rush-hour delays, up from just four hours in 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Another study said congestion costs the average motorist $360 annually in lost time and extra gasoline.

Urban sprawl also is taking its toll. Hamilton County's employment rose 82 percent, to 105,000, from 1990 to 2000, according to the Central Indiana Suburban Transportation & Mobility Study.

More than 50,000 Hamilton County residents drive to Marion County for work each day, data from the Indiana Business Research Center shows. Another 11,400 drive into Hamilton County from Indianapolis.

So it's no wonder highways in the northeast corridor are expected to become even more congested, with some studies estimating Hamilton County's population and employment will grow more than 60 percent in the next 20 years.

Major thoroughfares such as Interstate 69 already resemble parking lots during rush hour, due partly to an inadequate ramp system in Fishers and at the I-69/I-465 interchange.

Ultimately, oversaturation of the same highways that fueled the downfall of the old interurbans could be the driver of a return to rapid transit.

Many major highway routes are reaching limits for expansion, MPO's Dearing said. According to his agency, area motorists drove 31 million miles a day in 2002, up 47 percent since 1990. But miles of paved road rose just 14 percent "because adequate right-of-way no longer remains to expand the roadways."

Although there are plans to add additional lanes on parts of the most-congested northeast interstates, those corridors are now hemmed in with commercial development on both sides. Opposition from landowners in the 1970s helped kill the planned continuation of I-69 farther south through Indianapolis, to link at a now-barricaded, grass-covered ramp near the I-70/I-65 "north split" downtown.

That's one reason regional planners have identified the northeast corridor as the first leg of the rapid-transit system, which ultimately could serve up to 1.5 million people in the metro area.

Hamilton County's recent--and expected--growth also is a factor, since population density is considered key for rapid transit's success.

If leaders do nothing to confront the congestion problems that threaten the region's economy, "There are going to be a lot of driving factors that will make us think, 10 years from now, 'What were we thinking?'" said Hamilton County Commissioner Christine Altman, who also is president of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority.

And there are signs some commuters may be ready to get out of the driver's seat.

The American Public Transportation Association said public transit grew faster than highway travel in 2005, at 1.3 percent vs. 0.1 percent. Indianapolis' IndyGo buses carried 8.1 percent more riders in the first quarter of 2006 than in the same period last year.

Carpooling also has won some converts. Central Indiana Commuter Services, a federal program to encourage carpooling and other transportation alternatives, had 704 carpoolers in its database in May. It just added 126 more.

Evaluating the options

So what might a modern rapid-transit system look like?

As the MPO revealed last summer to exuberant media coverage, planners are contemplating three potential modes of transportation: light rail, dedicated bus lanes or a monorail-like "automated guideway" that travels on elevated tracks--options other cities have used with mixed results.

Each has advantages and drawbacks.

Bus lanes, for example, are the least costly to construct but the most expensive to operate. MPO estimated capital costs, excluding the vehicles, would range from $500 million to as much as $816 million for the first leg of the central Indiana system, compared with top prices of $1.1 billion for light rail and $1.4 billion for an automated system.

That option also offers the most flexibility, as the bus lanes can alternate between city streets and exclusive paths like abandoned rail corridors that are widened to accommodate the buses. And the busways can be converted back to rail use if that mode of transportation is adopted later.

The environmental impact of buses also is improving, according to a 2001 study from the federal General Accountability Office, since they increasingly are powered with alternative fuels, electric conductors in the pavement, or hybrid diesel-electric power plants, as IndyGo already uses in its fleet.

GAO's report also seemed to shoot holes in another possible drawback: the supposed white-collar aversion to climbing aboard a bus.

"While transit officials noted a public bias toward light rail, research has found that riders have no preference for rail over bus service when characteristics are equal," the report said, as is the case with express service that makes no or few stops between remote suburban locations and the downtown business district.

St. Louis transportation officials aren't convinced.

"The federal government tried to talk us into a busway, but people weren't having anything of it," recalled Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, the MPO's equivalent in St. Louis. "... Fair or not, there's kind of this bias toward the bus system being a really second-class system."

Even so, some cities have had success with buses.

"The thing that escapes people is that a busway operates much like a rapid-transit system," said Bob Grove, of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, in Pittsburgh.

While Pittsburgh is more known for a light-rail system that links to a downtown subway, it also has more than 16 miles of busways along three corridors. The busways stop at the county line, but the port authority operates 63 park-and-ride lots where suburban commuters can leave their cars and hop on a bus.

"We just can't build enough park-and-rides," Grove said.

About 10 percent of Pittsburgh commuters use public transportation vs. 1.5 percent in Indianapolis, according to U.S. Census data.

Still, there are disadvantages, including the higher operating costs--$2.20 per passenger instead of $1.60 for light rail or 20 cents for monorail, according to MPO estimates.

Another problem, MPO said, is that busy arterial streets, "which offer the greatest number of potential transit users," aren't wide enough for a dedicated bus lane.

Those factors may be why more cities choose light rail.

Getting on board

St. Louis started planning for a rapid-transit system in 1982, Sterman said, opening the first part of its 38-mile Metrolink light-rail in 1993 after city leaders asked a visionary question:

"Do you want to be a cosmopolitan city like others in the world with rapid-transit systems?"

Still, only 2 percent of St. Louis commuters ride public transit.

"It barely makes a blip on the radar screen, to be honest with you," Sterman admitted, but other factors helped sell the project. The permanence of rail, for example, was seen as a commitment to the neighborhoods it travels through.

While light-rail advocates tout its potential to generate commercial development, Sterman said widespread development has not taken off in St. Louis yet. One reason, he said, is that developers spent the last 60 years figuring out how to maximize development around interstate highways.

"A lot of developers don't know what to do around a transit stop," he said.

MPO's Inman said a study to be commissioned within weeks would look at appropriate uses of land around the proposed transit corridor here. Apartments, because they have high density of residents, are one type of development that can feed transit usage. Restaurants and day care centers might be others, she said.

Portland, Ore., officials boast $3.8 billion in development within walking distance of that city's 44-mile light-rail system, which has been running since 1986. At the time, it was one of only a handful of such systems in North America.

In fact, Portland has long been held up as the poster child for successful light rail, which makes up about one-third of its public transit network; the rest is conventional bus service.

About 13 percent of its residents take rapid transit--mostly bus and light rail. Among projects in the works is a commuter rail train, a heavier train that can travel at higher speeds. It will run along Interstate 5 west of Portland.

"You need a balanced transportation system," said Portland transit spokeswoman Mary Fetsch.

But critics argue not even Portland's light-rail system is all it's cracked up to be. Of the two newest rail lines, one carries fewer riders than the bus line it replaced, said O'Toole, the Oregon-based economist.

He said Portland made many improvements to its bus system in the 1970s, such as increased frequencies and speeds along with an array of park-and-ride stations "that led ridership to grow even more rapidly than it has grown since the light rail opened. From this point of view, light rail was a big mistake."

Making the right choice

Only one city in North America has rolled out an extensive monorail-like automated system--Vancouver, British Columbia.

Although it's comparatively costly to build, such a system has a couple of key advantages: With no driver on board, it has the lowest operating costs. And since the rail is typically elevated, it avoids right-of-way conflicts with other vehicles.

A close-to-home example is the privately funded, $40 million "peoplemover" that connects Methodist Hospital downtown with several medical facilities at IUPUI. The vehicles' rubber tires traverse concrete tracks alongside and sometimes above the streets. The 1.4-mile system is fairly low-tech, delivering a ride that can jostle passengers from side to side.

Although a monorail-like system remains an option for central Indiana, planners acknowledge some drawbacks after meeting with almost a dozen leaders from other cities with rapid-transit lines, including Vancouver.

Altman said Vancouver leaders stressed that automated systems work fine in high-density areas of town, where they have sufficient passenger loads. But as the Canadian city is expanding its rapid-transit system farther into the suburbs, it is using light rail instead since it isn't as costly to construct.

Also, some passengers might be reluctant to ride a vehicle without a driver, if only out of security concerns.

In a recent IBJ Daily survey that drew 1,063 respondents, the vast majority preferred commuter train or monorail-type vehicles, with few wanting to ride a dedicated busway. Those who preferred the bus qualified that they'd ride only if there were no or few stops along the way.

Some commuters still haven't bought into rapid transit--period.

"I travel only 25 miles each direction to work. The [rapid transit] modes would take longer to wait for and load than the whole [car] trip," one survey respondent wrote.

An overwhelming 89 percent of respondents said they would consider taking public transportation rather than a private vehicle to work. Yet only about 65 percent said they thought central Indiana was ready for a rapid-transit system.

"I don't think I would use it because I work at a hotel and my schedule changes on a daily basis. Some days I work late at night or early in the morning," Fishers resident Roberto Cantera told IBJ.

While Cantera doesn't enjoy his 30-minute commute to the downtown Marriott, he avoids most of the traffic congestion because he doesn't drive during peak hours.

Mike Kole, the Fishers resident who attended public meetings on the topic, noted that many commuters need their cars after they arrive at work.

"OK, you can get from 'A' to 'B' on [rapid transit]--then what?" he asked.

Others who use day care downtown might be reluctant to drag squirming toddlers onto a train. And if day care centers must be built near a Fishers train station--one of the land uses planners acknowledge could boost ridership--"now you're conceding [transit] doesn't work on its own," Kole added.

On the other hand, rapid-transit advocates frequently cite the packed IndyGo shuttle buses deployed during the Interstate 70 "Hyperfix" project in 2003 as evidence the public is ready for public transportation.

Shuttles between downtown and Fishers carried 4,740 to 14,051 passengers a month. It was a relatively small sampling, and some of those riders got off in Marion County. But it demonstrated a stronger affinity for public transportation than many planners expected.

Still, MPO's own research suggests it may be more difficult to get motorists to let someone else do the driving on a regular basis.

The 2001 report by the agency and its New York consulting firm estimated 11,800 one-way trips per day would be diverted from cars to the proposed northeast transit system--which works out to be less than 10 percent of the 124,000 trips made daily by those who commute between Hamilton and Marion counties, according to the Indiana Business Research Center.

MPO planner Inman said those projections could serve as a preliminary benchmark for what might be expected from the northeast corridor.

But, she added, "It's worthy to note that several newly opened rapid-transit systems around the country have significantly exceeded their ridership forecasting estimates."

Earlier projections for the northeast line may not have factored in the growing trend of "reverse commutes"--those heading for jobs in fast-growing Hamilton County, Altman said.

The accuracy of long-term ridership predictions remains to be seen, but immediate demand for rapid transit in central Indiana is about to get a critical test.

In March, IndyGo said it received a three-year, $3.6 million federal grant to help provide express bus service from downtown to Lawrence Township, then farther north to Fishers, Carmel and perhaps Westfield.

The bus company needs to come up with $1 million in local matching money to get started--probably late this year.

"It's the bus system that hopefully will ... show a demand for a rapid-transit system," said Mark Fisher, business advocacy manager for the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

And suburban dwellers who work in Marion County aren't the only potential passengers, he said, citing demand for public transit among city residents without cars who don't now have a practical way to commute to Hamilton County jobs.

The IndyGo express bus service to Hamilton County, though just a first step, "is an important first step," Fisher said. "Without that demand, it's going to be hard to secure funding" for rapid transit.

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