Readers say transportation should top city’s agenda: Growing traffic delays, struggling IndyGo system, possible rapid transit system among issues facing planners

The average Indianapolis motorist sits in traffic delays more than nine times longer than he or she did 20 years ago: 37 hours a year vs. just four hours in 1982, according to a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Growing delays have not only brought inconvenience and lost productivity, but also have earned the metro area “nonattainment” with federal air-quality standards. That raises the specter of expensive vehicle-emissions testing.

IBJ Daily readers ranked solving congestion/public transportation issues as most crucial to the metro area’s success.

Just as the trip downtown during rush hour is no longer a quick one, neither are the solutions. Among fixes being pursued by state and local planners:

An $850 million rapid transit system from downtown to Hamilton County.

Expanding interstates, including Interstate 465 at various locations, I-69 on the northeast side, and turning U.S. 31 between I-465 and 146th Street in Hamilton County into a limited-access highway.

Luring more motorists onto IndyGo buses.

Better reporting of traffic conditions on jammed interstates to direct vehicles to alternate routes.

The first two solutions are the most difficult and costly, but the other two proposals could have a big impact.

One thing that stands out about Indianapolis compared with some other cities

is “a very low level” of bus service availability, said Philip Roth, assistant manager of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, the government entity that manages transportation planning here. Its 130 buses during peak periods is less than half of some comparable cities.

The Indianapolis Transit Task Force last August found that IndyGo over the years targeted mostly the “transit dependent” and had not adjusted its service model to those who may be willing to part with their car keys.

IndyGo lately has been trying to modify its routes to catch up with changing population patterns. It’s pursuing opportunities to partner with businesses, and in November it kicked off Central Indiana Commuter Services, a car-pooling initiative using a Web site and tax incentives to encourage motorists to team up. Meanwhile, IndyGo is designing a transit station to be located near the RCA Dome that would allow riders to more easily transfer to other buses and to a future rapid transit system.

But will residents of a city who don’t pack its buses take the train? It’s an important question because the Indianapolis Regional Transit Council is studying the best route for an $850 million transit system running from downtown to Fishers, and perhaps as far north as Noblesville.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Indianapolis boasted a sophisticated interurban electric rail system. Cars and buses helped bring an end to the line.

Now in a position of having to re-create a system here, the city is studying three technologies for a northeast corridor transit system.

An automated guideway could be elevated, similar to the system linking Methodist Hospital and IUPUI. It costs the most to build, at about $50 million per mile, but has the lowest operating cost, at 20 cents per passenger. Elevating it also eliminates problems of road crossings.

The least costly system to build is bus rapid transit, at $30 million per mile. It would involve buses running on a dedicated guideway that also could drive on city streets. It has the highest operating cost, at $2.20 per passenger, including the cost of bus operators.

Light-rail transit falls in the middle in both capital and operating costs. It operates on a conventional rail corridor. It could provide plenty of capacity but might create a headache in terms of road crossings.

“There isn’t a clear favorite” so far, said the MPO’s Roth.

The preferred route could be announced in March. The soonest a transit system could be running would be 2010, planners say, but that may be wildly optimistic.

Roughly half the funding could come from federal coffers. Local taxpayers likely would foot the rest-not only for construction but also, later, for a portion of operating costs. Fares tend to cover only a sliver of operating and maintenance costs of capital-intensive rapid transit systems.

Meanwhile, the state is using technology to improve flow on local interstates. The Indiana Department of Transportation by mid-2005 plans to launch a Web site that eventually will show video images from 100 cameras and hundreds of road speed sensors.

A plan to turn clogged U.S. 31 in Hamilton County into a limited-access highway is still in the study stage, with exact configuration to be determined. Design and land acquisition typically take about two years each.

The state has already begun work to add lanes to I-465 on the northwest side between I-65 and just north of 86th Street. The three-year project includes rebuilding the 71st Street and 86th Street exits.

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