Suburban Issues and Mass Transit and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

Private-sector group forging transit plan

January 26, 2009
With commuter trains stuck at the proverbial station despite decades of studies, a business-led coalition is barreling forth with its own plan to study multimodal transportation and related land use.

The newly formed Central Indiana Transit Task Force won't stop at studying opportunities to link rail and buses in the metro area. It will also explore how to tie the nine-county region to key cities such as Bloomington, Columbus, Lafayette and Muncie.

The task force and its consultants plan to complete a thorough cost-benefit analysis by midsummer.

The ambitious transit initiative has on board some prominent economic minds, including task force co-chairman Allan Hubbard, who served both Bush administrations. Most recently he was assistant to the president for economic policy and director of the National Economic Council.

"No one has ever stepped back to look at it from a comprehensive standpoint ... using cost-benefit analysis," said Hubbard, co-founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based acquisition firm E& A Industries Inc.

Without such a review, "we risk making really some serious, very expensive mistakes."

The task force consists of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, Central Indiana Community Foundation and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The city's MPO has for the better part of 30 years conducted various transportation-planning studies, including the potential of commuter rail. Its work culminated last September in the pivotal recommendation by the Indianapolis Regional Transportation Council to proceed with environmental and preliminary engineering analysis for a diesel light-rail line from downtown to Noblesville, via the old Nickel Plate Line.

It would be—if funding can be found—the first leg of a regional rail transit system coordinated with IndyGo bus connections. A handful of bills are pending in the Legislature that would allow local governments to capture sales tax revenue to fund public transit such as bus and rail.

The transit task force doesn't propose throwing out the northeast rail plan, Hubbard said. Rather, it wants to pursue additional ideas for the broader geographic area "that are realistic, especially from a funding perspective."

That could involve finding a way to expand the chronically underfunded IndyGo bus system. Or it could include dedicated bus lanes or opening shoulders of freeways to use during peak traffic, on a pay-per-use basis. "Everything is on the table," Hubbard said.

Need regional strategy

The group envisions a multimodal transit approach—a web of rail and bus stations, bike lanes and pedestrian paths. Even downtown streetcars, as proposed last year by a group of Indianapolis businessmen, could be in the mix.

The analysis also will be mindful of the potential to redevelop urban areas alongside the routes for transit-oriented development.

"There is no generally accepted plan that ties multiple modes of transportation into a truly regional strategy—and no way to measure the real benefits of the options being proposed," the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership said in a statement.

The public-private effort to develop a comprehensive transportation plan has the support of Mayor Greg Ballard.

The task force is working from an existing foundation of ideas but notably is applying a level of cost-benefit analysis not conducted previously, said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, which would implement a future rail system.

"That is a different kind of work that prior planning studies hadn't done. [Previous studies] attempted to solve a transportation problem" principally, he said.

Bingaman, who formerly headed the reuse effort for Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence, said when he was hired by CIRTA in 2007 the board pressed the need to make a strong business case and to get the business community engaged.

The momentum has been building. In October, the Chamber and CIRTA led a delegation of businesses and civic leaders to tour Denver's rail transit system and to learn from leaders in that city how best to proceed.

The visit underscored the need for closely integrating the rail system with bus service and the need to get cooperation from local governments in the broader Denver area.

In November, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Commission gave the MPO the green light to seek an expedited study that would provide a clearer picture of a comprehensive regional transit system—beyond the proposed northeast starter system—and of how much it would cost.

Specifically, the commission authorized the MPO to amend an existing consulting agreement with Kansas City, Mo.-based HNTB Corp. to develop the big-picture concept on a fast track, one that could be useful for presenting to the Indiana General Assembly.

Now, under the plan by the new transit task force, MPO consultant HNTB will work with Omaha, Neb.-based transportation consulting firm HDR Inc., which has conducted transit analysis for such cities as Cincinnati and Toronto.

The principal focus will be finding a level of surface-transportation supply that's economically viable, said David Lewis, senior vice president and chief economist at HDR in Silver Springs, Md.

Putting a number to it

One focus of the study will be how much money commuters and businesses that rely on trucks could save through reduced congestion.

An Indianapolis commuter traveling during peak hours now loses about 43 hours per year due to congestion, versus 21 hours in 1985, according to The 2007 Urban Mobility Report of the Texas Transportation Institute.

Those delays cost the metro area $478 million annually, according to TTI.

To avoid delays, people leave early to get to work on time or to pick up children from day care. Trucks need a cushion to ensure they meet the demanding delivery schedules of just-in-time manufacturing.

"People are building buffers into their schedules. All those buffers add up to hundreds of millions of dollars per year," Lewis said.

"Time has an economic value, and we're going to measure what the value of [potential] time savings are."

Lewis, a former principal economist for the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, said his team also will qualify the potential economic impact that transit vehicles such as trains could have on the community.

In many cities that have added commuter rail, developers were able to command a premium for housing located near a train station. Many of these so-called transit-oriented developments sprouted shopping and other amenities within walking distance.

Lewis said his team can complete the study in fairly short order based on experience in other cities and because a great deal of research has already been conducted locally through transit studies. The outcome should give businesses, which are likely to shoulder much of the expense of transit systems, additional assurance about the economic returns, Lewis said.

"The maximum return on investment—that is the business principle we're invoking."

Purging predisposition

Hubbard said the transit task force also seeks to better gauge public sentiment for various transportation options. He's dismissive of some polling done by businesses and community groups in recent years that purported to show strong public support for rail.

If one phrases the questions based on tax consequences "then I think you'll get a different answer," he said.

The study will not be approached with a predisposition toward any one type of transit system or combination, Hubbard said.

"We want to build on what's been done. We want to impose objective, microeconomic tools."

Task force backers argue there's a lot at stake in improving mobility in the region, including the ability to attract and retain workers, "particularly young, educated workers who value vibrant communities with transit options," CICP said.

The task force is being funded through a combination of private and federal grant money. It currently has a budget of about $500,000.

Other key players in the group include Co-chairmen Bob Palmer, vice president and general manager of Federal Express national hub operations, and John Neighbours, a partner at Indianapolis law firm Baker & Daniels; as well as Mark Miles, president and CEO of CICP, Roland Dorson, Chamber president, and Brian Payne, president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

An interim report is due by mid-spring. "The creation of the comprehensive system described here should be completed within a decade," states a document the task force prepared for potential members.
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