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IndyGO Focuses on the Basics

May 16, 2016 | IndySTAR | Link to Article

Transportation advocates will stress improvements to the entire city bus system rather than the development of Red Line.

Transportation advocates will stress improvements to the entire city bus system rather than development of controversial bus rapid transit lines as they promote a voter referendum to raise taxes for mass transit.

The vast majority of the $56 million generated by the tax would fix traditional problems vexing basic bus service, such as long waits, short hours of operation and unreliability, rather than running the Red Line rapid transit route, said officials with IndyGo and the Indy Chamber, which will push for passage of the referendum on the November election ballot.

By 2021, buses on a dozen lines would run every 15 minutes daily, compared with two lines on weekdays now; service hours would increase 70 percent; and the number of routes that run every hour would be reduced. The buses would operate 20 hours a day, starting earlier and ending later, said Bryan Luellen, a spokesman for IndyGo.

Marion County voters will be asked to raise personal income taxes by 0.25 percent to improve bus service. The increase would cost a worker making $50,000 annually $130 a year and supplement IndyGo's budget, which was $69.8 million this year.

The added revenue also would be used to operate the Red Line — the all-electric route with dedicated lanes stretching from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis — and would fund sidewalk construction and shelters at bus stops.

While IndyGo plans more buses on popular routes, it will reduce service on less frequently used routes on the southwest and southeast sides.

Sean Northup, assistant executive director for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, said budget restrictions forced planners to make a choice between increasing frequency and increasing coverage area. A transportation consultant hired by IndyGo studied ridership trends and surveyed passengers about their preferences.

“By a 90-10 (percentage) margin, they wanted more frequent buses,” he said.

Northup said efficient transit systems help a city's business, housing, economic development and health. Housing values increase along reliable transit lines, employee turnover and lost work hours decrease, business development spikes, and people using transit walk more than people who drive, he said.

Bus service now is so infrequent it is difficult for workers to depend on it to get them to their jobs, especially if they have to transfer lines. That also makes it difficult for the bus system to attract new riders. With the upgrades, officials said, commuters won't need to consult bus schedules but can simply walk to a bus stop knowing that a bus will come by within minutes.

"It is not a good outlook if something isn't done" to improve the system, Luellen said.

Central Indiana ranks 86th in transit spending per capita but would move up to 65th with the budget boost from the tax hike. Cleveland, Charlotte, N.C., and Madison, Wis., spend twice as much per person as Indianapolis, IndyGo officials said.

The $96 million Red Line, to be built with a $75 million federal grant and $21 million in local funds, would be the linchpin of the reinvigorated bus system. But some residents along College Avenue oppose the line because College and some intersections would be redesigned, which the residents contend would cause traffic congestion, take away parking spots and hurt businesses.

Foes also are bothered by the residential build-out near the line that planners are encouraging and anticipating, known as “transit-oriented development.”

Residents in March helped stop an apartment building planned for College Avenue and Kessler Boulevard. The four-story, 151-unit building proposed by TWG Development LLC was the type of development planners envision to bring residents close to the Red Line.

This rendering presents a bird's-eye view of the proposed Link at Kessler apartment complex, looking north on College Avenue. (Photo: Provided by TWG Development LLC)

Neighbors revolted against the development because it would increase traffic. They have taken up the rallying cry, punctuated by lawn signs throughout the neighborhood, of “Homes not high-rises.”

“This type of development will destroy the quaint and historic character of the College corridor with the small business in houses that line the street,” said Lee Lange, an opponent of the Red Line. “Developers are just lining up to replace them with massive housing complexes.”

The Red Line is the first of three planned rapid transit bus lines: The Blue Line would stretch from Cumberland to Indianapolis International Airport, and the Purple Line would run from Lafayette Square Mall to Lawrence. Plans for a line from Downtown to Fishers and Noblesville have been put on hold because of questions about funding.

Northup said opposition to the Red Line didn't take officials by surprise, and it was the advocates' job to convince the public that the tax hike and system upgrades are worthwhile.

“You are going to run into some resistance in the neighborhoods; that’s to be expected,” Northup said. “There is going to be some tension.”

Transit backers also must persuade people to support the transit tax hike in parts of the city that will have their bus service reduced.

Retired cabinet maker Charlie Davis, 69, who lives on the west side, used to ride the bus to work every day. He said the system is badly in need of longer hours and more frequent buses.

"Once I missed the last bus and walked 10 miles," said Davis, a member of Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN), a group that supports the referendum.

"It is vitally important to thousands of people who need to get to their jobs and have no other means, as well as to the companies that hire them," he said.

The Indy Chamber will spend money to hire a firm to promote the referendum, but the campaign probably won’t include TV ads because air time is so expensive this election season, said Mark Fisher, vice president of government relations and policy development for the Indy Chamber.

Lange said opponents would mount a low-cost campaign against the tax hike.

“It will be much more grass-roots and targeted," she said. "We don’t have a ton of money like the Chamber.”

Call IndyStar reporter John Tuohy at (317) 444-6418. Follow him on Twitter: @john_tuohy.