East-west rail line could boost Indianapolis' core

February 13, 2010

In parts of Washington Street, you can see them poking through crumbling asphalt—rails that once carried streetcar-like vehicles to downtown from what in the early 1900s were the far-flung suburbs of Marion County.

Many of those suburbs now lay fallow. Residents and businesses years ago moved farther out thanks in part to the rise of the automobile.

But with traffic congestion growing, the idea of sending rail cars zipping down Washington Street—from far-east-side Cumberland to Indianapolis International Airport on the west—is making a return.

And the route could offer the best bang for the buck in spurring transit-oriented development.

The Washington Street light rail proposal by the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, which released its long-anticipated report Feb. 10, was a surprise amid what was otherwise a familiar wish list of rail transit projects proposed over the years.

Transit’s potential to spur development and create jobs is key to making the proposed system worth the estimated $6.7 billion it would cost to build and the estimated $107 million in annual operating costs.

The task force report estimates total economic development return at $27 billion in “additional regional economic output” over and above what could be expected under the current 25-year transportation plan for the region. Further, it estimates that property values could increase $2 billion, especially along the routes and at various transit stops.

The report otherwise echoed decades of government studies showing the need for commuter rail lines to Fishers and Greenwood and a substantial increase in IndyGo bus service inside and beyond Marion County.

Help for the core

Perhaps the Washington Street light rail concept is most intriguing because the main east-west artery through the county has largely been forgotten in an era of interstates and suburban sprawl.

According to the task force, the percentage of employment in the urban center of the city has declined to 21 percent from 24 percent in the late-1990s.


The area also has lower average household income. Property values have risen slower in much of Marion County.

“To have a strong central Indiana, you have to have a strong core,” said Allan Hubbard, co-chairman of the task force and CEO of Indianapolis-based acquisition firm E&A Industries.

Washington Street hasn’t been prominent in previous transit discussions, with the focus instead on how to make it easier for better-off Hamilton County residents to commute to downtown.



But Washington Street may have more potential for spurring development than a northeast rail line, said Adam Thies, president of Indianapolis-based planning and strategic management firm Eden Collaborative.

The northeast corridor has entrenched neighborhoods and higher land values than along much of Washington Street. That means developers could snap up land much cheaper along Washington for transit-oriented development such as housing or retail.

And the Washington Street rail proposal has another intriguing lure: Trains would run down the middle of the street. That would bring potential customers right to the front door of retailers—as opposed to their back doors if trains ran on a dedicated corridor, off the street.

Light-rail vehicles would ebb and flow with street traffic. Riders can hop on and off more frequently than with commuter rail, which uses widely spaced train stations.

There’s also the potential for redevelopment.

Washington Street sports a number of older, architecturally interesting houses that can be bought on the cheap and restored, Thies noted. An underperforming area of the city can be rebuilt to generate higher tax revenue.

Of course, if you build it, will they come?

“The problem in Indianapolis is, we just don’t have as strong an urban-living ethos as other cities,” Thies added.

Urban design expert Harry Eggink, a professor of architecture at Ball State University, thinks a certain segment of population will flock back closer to the city core to live if transit is available in a more limited geographic area. Think singles and empty-nesters, for example, for which public schools aren’t an issue.

“If I have to go on mass transit, I’ve got to go to where mass transit is,” Eggink said.

Indeed, transit proponents often focus on either end of a transit line, but “they forget to think about the middle part,” said Lori Miser, executive director of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“The opportunities [for development] are almost unlimited along Washington Street,” she added.

As for tying a Washington Street line with Indianapolis International Airport, the new airport terminal was designed to accommodate future track. Space for track can be seen between the terminal and its parking garage, with underpasses below the roads that lead up to the terminal entrance.

Integration potential

Not mentioned by the transit task force, but similar in vehicle type as to what has been proposed for Washington Street, is an initiative exploring a streetcar system serving the downtown area.

In 2008, several civic leaders formed Indianapolis Streetcar Corp. to study a potential system to serve the immediate downtown and attractions such as the Indianapolis Zoo, IUPUI and the Clarian Health medical center complex. Such a circulator system could be a boon for Indianapolis’ visitors and convention business.

Streetcars have thrived in cities such as Portland, Ore., bringing with them high-density development along the line.

“Now, 45 cities are looking at the streetcar for that purpose,” said Steve DeVoe, an attorney at Bose McKinney & Evans, and president of the streetcar initiative.

His group has tapped consultants who are studying the concept further.

Streetcars would be “synergistic and supportive of commuter rail,” DeVoe said.

So would buses. The transit task force proposes a substantial expansion of IndyGo routes before taking on the more expensive prospect of commuter rail. A transformed IndyGo would rely less on the hub-and-spoke system it operates under in favor of more direct routes, which would decrease wait times for passengers.

Besides adding additional, more direct routes within Marion County, the transit task force proposes express routes to cities such as Plainfield and the Zionsville area. Currently, IndyGo manages an express route to Fishers and Carmel and to parts south of Indianapolis.

“Too many times, I’ve found job opportunities for people, but without transit they can’t go to work,” said Joe Slash, executive director of the Indianapolis Urban League.

“We need to look at this not as a social thing but as an economic development tool.”

Funding is the biggest challenge. Perhaps the most controversial idea is to create a local option sales tax in counties served by the transit initiatives that could cost residential households $15 a month, or about $180 a year.

But the task force also proposes reallocating some tax money that would otherwise go into highway projects—perhaps $600 million from road projects planned for the next 25 years.

Another proposed income source is money generated from the creation of optional “express” toll lanes that could be added to parts of Interstates 65 on the south side and 69 on the north side. Fees paid for access to those faster travel lanes would pay for the additional lanes and throw off more revenue to fund the larger transit system.• 


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