Did Statehouse drama doom battered Indianapolis bus project?

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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.”

Delays, delays

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.

Statehouse action:

2020: A Freeman amendment would’ve withheld money from IndyGo if it didn’t meet certain fundraising requirements.

2021: A Freeman bill included similar fundraising penalties. An amendment, also his, would’ve made IndyGo reimburse utility companies for relocation work.

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.

Finding fault

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.

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18 thoughts on “Did Statehouse drama doom battered Indianapolis bus project?

  1. This “article” reads like an Aaron Freeman press release. He is an enemy of Indianapolis and of progress. West Washington Street is a crumbling disgrace and his backwards, rural tactics will keep it that way.

    1. Estimates are that Marion County needs many millions of dollars for roads, every year.

      The federal funding to fix the roads is available but requires dedicated bus lanes. Is this perfect? No, but would you rather have a one lane nice road or two lanes of potholes? I’ll take the one lane, myself.

      If Freeman and his fellow obstructionist Marion County Republicans feel so strongly about not having dedicated bus lanes, they need to deliver at the Statehouse and FIX THE ROADS. Freeman’s has been in office since 2017. So that means three budget cycles where he’s had a voice and he’s failed to deliver and he already making excuses for 2023 and going on with this technical fix gobbledygook. Maybe it’s time for a change.

      A state road formula that pays the same for roads like Keystone or Emerson compared to a two lane country road is nonsense. It should be the highest priority for Indianapolis’ elected officials at the state level to fix.

      If you really want to get frustrated at Freeman and Sandlin and Young and Speedy, go see the nice roads throughout Indiana paid for by Indianapolis residents. You know, the parts of Indiana where all the residents are leaving to go live in the Indianapolis suburbs or other states altogether. It’s infrastructure welfare, plain and simple.

  2. Good governance doesn’t mean no spending, it means making the right investments. Every time there is an infrastructure project there is a long line of complainers about money that is being spent. We are sending money back to the taxpayers as a political stunt when we need to be using that to invest in roads and mass transit options that will make us an attractive place for both new residents and business to move.

    Indianapolis was a step ahead of its Midwest peers for some time, but that is no longer the case. Our closest peer city, Columbus, is running laps around us at this point. Kansas City is not far behind. How long before cities such as Nashville are taking some of our high profile events once they have an enclosed stadium to pair with all of their downtown development?

  3. IndyGo is a joke. Bloated admin salaries and bloated Union drivers.
    There has to be a way to serve the riders while saving millions each year that can be put towards road repairs.

    1. Please provide the data to justify this. Bloated salaries compared to what. Please note that transit and roads are separate entities. A sales tax was passed to fund transit operations and infrastructure. Roadway infrastructures has been funded by the city and state — and please note the funding formula for roadways clearly provide the advantage to rural areas. Furthermore, how might riders be served and save millions? How many millions and based on what calculation. And how much should bus operators make — $2 per hour? A review of funding streams for transit and roadways does not indicate that funding for transit can be redirected for roadways. However, additional taxes, or user fees for roadways would better provide the necessary funding that has deceased substantially as the gas tax has not be indexed to inflation and therefore has proven insufficient to fund the current roadways and certainly not new roadways.

    2. First, you don’t understand how things work. IndyGo is primarily funded by a tax that legally can only go Yo transit projects, so any savings would not go to roads, and a few million more for roads would do jack. The Statehouse needs to redo its BS road funding allocation and give cities a fair allocation of the state taxes collected that reflects how much it actually costs to maintain roads. Second, yes, union jobs are terrific—workers coming together to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions is the only way working conditions have ever improved for workers anywhere. And, no one is getting rich driving a bus, but they are getting a salary that allows them to support themselves and their families,

  4. “It doesn’t work. It’s not going to work. It’s not sustainable.” This was a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of a public transit enemy. It doesn’t work because the bozos at the Statehouse ensured it would not work through their meddling. This is what happens when we continually elect people into government who hate government and want to destroy it.

  5. Regardless whos to blame here at least IndyGo is now admitting this stupid plan isn’t working. Meanwhile we have destroyed our street grid and now have gridlock everywhere downtown. Who didn’t see this coming?

    1. What gridlock? Seriously, there isn’t any gridlock. It gets mildly inconvenient for 15 minutes once in the afternoon, at worst. And where did IndyGo say this isn’t working? Did you read the article?

    2. AT –
      Indy Go is not going to admit something isn’t working or any failure.
      They, like any other organization don’t want to lose their funding..

    3. I’m pretty confident the Red Line didn’t cause gridlock Downtown. Pretty sure that’s from the North Split shutdown. I also don’t see how it destroyed the street grid.

    1. Not creating public transit and being unable to fund our roads by hte handcuffs put on us by the statehouse are not economically feasible…

  6. “But state Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis—long an opponent to the expensive, fixed-route design and its use of bus-only lanes—disagrees.”
    Aaron Freeman is wrong. The project design, cost, and financing met all requirements of the Federal Transit Administration which is responsible for approving not only funding but delivery of transit projects nationwide. Mr. Freeman was clearly unhappy with an appointed board for IndyGo, as indicated on his website which has since been modified. and sought to subvert the will of the people who voted in earnest to provide income tax revenue to fund IndyGo improvements listed in the Marion County transit plan.

    This tax revenue does indeed sustain operations as the income stream can be readily defined and the service operating plan (read: cost to provide service and anticipated fare revenue) can be defined, with annual refinements as necessary. Mr.. Freeman provide opinion and personal views not based on fact or analysis. Nor is Mr. Freeman a transportation design, financing, or operations expert and due to his vengenful and vindictive anti-IndyGo measures has effected cost increases and negative impacts to the City of Indianapolis residents and infrastructure. Unfortunately, the political shenanigans advanced by Mr.Freeman reflects an unfortunate case of ignorance advancing over comprehensive analysis.

    Now let’s consider fixed route design. A fixed route with fixed stops along a fixed guideway defines rapid transit, be it bus or rail. And frequent service operates along the fixed guideway. This enables users to get on a bus that operates at frequent intervals, and because of the dedicated lanes the bus can provide reliable service because said bus will not be stuck in traffic behind cars with typically one individual. So, would Mr. Freeman suggest infrequent service and a meandering route — would that be sustainable and attractive and a financially responsible plan — one thinks not.

    While politicians should ask questions, they should also refer to expert opinion. While politicians may have opinions, these should be considered based on actual analysis. While politicians have power to propose measures, this power should not be abused for personal gain nor for personal vendettas.

    We The People have had enough of this foolishness. The cost increases are clearly due to delay and the buck rests squarely with the individual legislative measures to stop progress in Indianapolis.

    Why the hate and rancor against IndyGo. Why the hate and rancor for those who use transit. Why the hate and rancor against Indianapolis having a reliable, efficient, and effective transit system — one that the majority voted for.

    Now one must not forget that the Goldsmith administration embraced the [bad] idea of making buses operate less frequently and that led to a massive decrease in ridership. Now Indianapolis has the opportunity to seek to better a bad and unfortunate yesteryear decision of underfunding transit.

    And, honestly, many across the nation have looked at IndyGo BRT as an example of cost effective rapid transit. And for those sensational statements regarding expense, please note that rapid transit in most cities cost $billions — a single 20 mile light rail line easily is one billion dollars — total cost for 3 lines of BRT in Indianapolis with 60 stations (assuming truncated Blue Line) is about $600 million (assuming new high costs for Blue Line). And bear in mind, a single major interchange, such as I-70/I-465 east could cost $300 million.

    So, take a look at Salt Lake City and its Utah Transit Authority service area — a conservative GOP region with very dispersed population — 5 light rail lines, grid bus network, commuter rail and more reasonable rational politicians who realize that good transportation, roads and transit, is good for all.

    1. Forgetting one important thing regarding Salt Lake City.
      Their population is growing at a much faster rate than the city of
      Indianapolis.

  7. Sad story in general. Redesigning College Avenue has been one of my favorite projects in our area. It is so much safer to cross the street on foot at intersections than it used to be. And I do ride the Red Line at least once a week.

    I was hoping for a similar style of benefit to West Washington Street.

  8. The objective of public transportation is not to generate a profit (or even break-even). It is to move people. This is something that Aaron Freeman either does not understand or refuses to accept.

    If anything, IndyGo needs more funding to put more buses and drivers on the road between 6am and 12am Mondays through Saturdays, with buses arriving at convenient stops every 15 minutes. Make the bus a more predictable and convenient transportation option, and more people will ride it.

    Make it free, and even more people will hop on board. Nearly three years ago Kansas City became the first large U.S. city to implement a universal, systemwide fare-free transit program after a unanimous City Council vote (funding is provided by a combination of government revenue and corporate contributions).

    Indianapolis and IndyGo need to think big, forge ahead, and make public transit the preferred way to get around our city.

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