Indianapolis’ public transportation authority last week finalized a controversial cost-cutting change in a bid to save a financially precarious bus rapid transit project with built-in infrastructure help.
IndyGo and transit advocates argue three consecutive years of legislative efforts by state Republicans to kill the project led to costly delays, while opponents say the undertaking was never financially feasible.
“What angers me is that these people at the Statehouse know that Indianapolis doesn’t have enough infrastructure revenue … So we look at creative methods to fund our projects and then they kill one of those creative methods without giving us the funding to complete the infrastructure work,” said City-County Councilor Jared Evans, a Democrat representing parts of Indianapolis’ west and southwest sides.
But state Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis—long an opponent to the expensive, fixed-route design and its use of bus-only lanes—disagrees.
“They turned this thing into a mess,” he said. “It doesn’t work. It’s not going to work. It’s not sustainable. And none of that surprises me and it shouldn’t surprise anybody else.”
Saving money, not roads
The $520 million Blue Line, up from a $220 million estimate in 2019, would run mostly east-west along Washington Street from Cumberland to the Indianapolis International Airport. About 42% of the total cost is stormwater infrastructure.
The Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp.’s board agreed on Oct. 27 to swap out a west-side chunk of the route for an “express” segment along Interstate-70. The move is expected to save $50 million upfront and $1.7 million annually.
But that means the bus project won’t bring infrastructure help to part of the heavily trafficked Washington Street.
Evans said he and other advocates got the segment added in the first place as a means to pay for a reconstructed road surface, curbs, sidewalks, a multi-use path, new traffic light signals, and drainage.
“[IndyGo was] fearful that they would have another fight with the General Assembly in 2023,” Evans said. “And so they made that decision. It’s not a decision that I support. I also feel like their hands were a little bit tied.”
IndyGo has said inflation, electric bus price hikes and updated drainage design standards more than doubled the price tag — but traces the delays that engendered those costs to the Statehouse.
2020: A Freeman amendment would’ve withheld money from IndyGo if it didn’t meet certain fundraising requirements.
2022: A bill from Sen. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis, would’ve banned new dedicated bus lanes outside Mile Square downtown. IndyGo’s federal funding requires such lanes. An amendment authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, would’ve removed some fundraising requirements if IndyGo maintained Washington Street’s four driving lanes.
IndyGo’s October board packet says the Blue Line was “put on hold” at 30% design completion in 2020, pending bills that would’ve affected the project.
After session ended, IndyGo hit hit 60% design completion but delayed construction from late 2020 to 2023 as it scrambled to finish the Red Line.
“With legislative actions pending during the last two [2021 and 2022] sessions, that timeline has been further extended, with [the] current schedule showing a late 2024 construction start,” the packet says. It also says buying up right-of-way for the segment under fire would’ve posed an “unacceptable risk” because of “factors outside of its control including pressure from the Indiana State Legislature to modify the configuration in that segment.”
To avoid that, IndyGo excised the problem section.
The Blue Line is now expected to open in 2027, five years after its original 2022 opening.
Asked if Indianapolis would have the line by now without state interference, or if the bus project would’ve been closer to the initial timeline, IndyGo spokeswoman Carrie Black simply said, “Yes.”
But Freeman said it was doomed from the start.
“That’s just patently false,” Freeman said. “I had concerns back when I was on the City-County Council. The numbers never added up—the numbers as I knew them.”
He argued that IndyGo has never met certain state financial requirements and will never be able to, though Black has previously said that the agency does comply with the law.
“Nothing here is the Legislature’s fault. It’s all IndyGo,” Freeman said. “It’s been very poorly mismanaged. It’s been very poorly rolled out.”
“It’s been a great frustration of mine, that the Indiana Senate has been very willing to try to fix what should have been fixed in 2015—meaning, put some provisions in place to hold IndyGo accountable—and that’s just not occurred through the Legislature,” he added.
IndyGo still plans to go ahead with the rest of the Blue Line, which will complete a three-pronged bus rapid transit system with the existing Red Line and in-construction Purple Line. Mayor Joe Hogsett is also still on board: “The City is committed to working with our partners at IndyGo and Citizens Energy Group to bring this critical infrastructure project to fruition,” his office said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle.
But further delays could bump project costs even further up, or jeopardize critical Federal Transit Authority Small Starts funding.
A different route to road funding?
Freeman, meanwhile, acknowledged state lawmakers representing areas with more one-lane roads are unlikely to support road funding formula updates that pay out more money for roads with more lanes.
But he’s working on another solution to Indianapolis’ road infrastructure funding woes ahead of the legislative session’s January kickoff. Road funding to the city-county, he said, is based on smaller, pre-Unigov city limits.
“We need to do a—what I think is a technical fix—to change that formula to ensure that it’s all of Marion County,” Freeman said.
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.