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Would Cleveland bus rapid transit work for Indy? Voters can decide

November 6, 2016 | IndyStar | Link to Article

 

 
How BRT could roll in Indy
 

Marion County voters are being asked to pay for a income tax hike to fund improved bus service, including new bus rapid transit lines. Here's how BRT is working in Cleveland and could be used in Indy. (John Tuohy/IndyStar) Wochit

CLEVELAND — For Sarah Mok, this city’s bus rapid transit line is as close as she’ll get to hiring a chauffeur.

The HealthLine runs so often along busy Euclid Avenue that Mok uses her student pass for the shortest of errands.

“I can get off to pick something up and then get back on with a wait of only a couple minutes,” the 20-year-old Cleveland State University pre-dental student said recently during a six-block trip from campus to a drugstore. “It is pretty fast, dependable and on time.”

Mok said the bus puts to shame service in her hometown of Louisville, Ky. Yet Louisville’s lackluster transit system still outranks Indianapolis in spending.

Those positive reviews — and the economic benefits that come with them — are why Indy leaders say they want a bus rapid transit line much like that of Cleveland, where buses get their own lanes and quickly pull into and out of street stations that look like train stops.

IndyGo’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit Red Line is the centerpiece of a voter referendum on Tuesday's ballot that would allow an income tax increase in Marion County. The tax — 25 cents for every $100 of income — would pay for a 70 percent increase in city bus service systemwide, as well as for operation of the Red Line and two future BRTs.

The question now is whether voters will go for it. Are they willing to dig into their own pockets to fund a basic city service most of them won't use but that could benefit Indianapolis at large, especially people in poorer neighborhoods?

Big business, civic groups and a coalition of bus riders say the Red Line is worth the investment and argue that it will spur economic development. But some taxpayers and businesses along the proposed route have doubts and fear the construction of the line would cause unnecessary and catastrophic disruptions.

 

Cleveland's HealthLine buses roll in bus-only lanes,Buy Photo

Cleveland's HealthLine buses roll in bus-only lanes, and GPS technology turns the traffic lights green when they approach. (Photo: John Tuohy/IndyStar)

The Cleveland experience

Cleveland’s 9-mile-long route faced many of the same questions — and both sides turned out to be right.

Ridership has gone up 60 percent — to 5 million annual trips — and development has exploded.

At the same time, some businesses said they suffered terribly during construction and are still resentful. Others closed or moved. Still, other observers said the growth downtown was coming regardless of the bus line.

Cleveland’s HealthLine cost $200 million to build and required major street rebuilding. And Michael Schipper, deputy general manager of the Greater Cleveland Rapid Transit Authority, said there was plenty of resistance from businesses along the route.

“We had to do sidewalk, curbs, gutters and utilities,” Schipper said recently in a conference room at RTA’s offices in the Wholesale District. “With any new endeavor there is a lot of skepticism and anxiety.”

But Schipper said the construction allowed the city to upgrade some of the rotting old utility pipes and bury electric lines underground, which in turn made the corridor “good to make an investment.” The stations were built in segments over three years to reduce the pain, and some businesses used the construction time to remodel.

“There were a lot of empty storefronts there before,” he said. “Now some of the businesses have expanded or have seen business increase two or three times.”

Since the HealthLine opened, more than $5.8 billion in development has risen around it — $114 for each transit dollar invested, according to a study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, of New York.

The RTA said most of the investment was for big projects at Cleveland State University and nearby museums and hospitals but includes more than 4,000 new residential units, 7.9 million square feet in commercial development and 13,000 new jobs.

Still, some longtime businesses along the route and even riders are skeptical of how much the HealthLine is responsible for the development spurt. They said with the building in 1994 of a new baseball park and basketball arena as part of the Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex, Cleveland was on its way to revitalization anyway.

As a result, some business owners question whether the construction was more trouble than it was worth.

“The construction period was long, painful and disruptive to vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” said David Kaufman, co-owner of Brothers Printing, which has been in business 75 years and on Euclid since 1975. “Some would say it is still complicated because parking has been taken away and access to some areas is limited.”

Kaufman said the development boon has been good overall, and he himself is converting a building he owns next door to apartments.

“I guess the city would say the proof is in the pudding,” Kaufman said. “But the question is, ‘Would it have happened anyway in a less painful way?’”

At Café Ah-Roma, partner Bob Oakes said business dropped 60 percent during construction and “there were days when access to our place was completely blocked off.”

In fact, he said, one of the shop’s owners got into a dispute with a contractor, and the police were called.

Oakes said it took about a year for business to return to normal, and “we continue to thrive.” But he said new development hasn’t been good news for everyone.

“They opened a (Cleveland State) student center across the street with a coffee shop, food and other retail, and now the students have more options,” he said. “A lot of business went down.”

Along Cleveland's HealthLine, diesel and electric hybridBuy Photo

Along Cleveland's HealthLine, diesel and electric hybrid buses come along every five minutes during rush hour. (Photo: John Tuohy/IndyStar)

 

A breeze for riders

Despite the debate among business owners, the snappy bus service has been a hit with the college students, downtown workers and medical interns who frequently use it.

“It is fast and on time, and my friends take it all the time,” Britany Smith, a 27-year-old nursing student, said as she waited at a platform downtown.

Along the line, diesel and electric hybrid buses come along every five minutes during rush hour and pull up to a sheltered platform with a “ding, ding, ding,” similar to a train.

Three sets of doors open, and passengers come pouring out before another group walks in. The passengers buy tickets at dispensers, and no conductor asks to see the passes when they board, though a transit cop might later, during random checks.

The raised platform and the honor system allow speedy boarding. The buses leave the station in about 20 seconds, with more “dings,” as they continue along Euclid, one of Cleveland’s main thoroughfares.

From downtown, the buses pass several of the city’s top institutions: Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The HealthLine, in fact, gets its name from the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, which pays $250,000 a year to the RTA for the rights.

Station platforms are in the middle of the street and on the curb so the buses have doors on both sides, much like a subway car. The buses roll in bus-only lanes, and GPS technology turns the traffic lights green when they approach.

Lavalle Hall, 21, a junior at Cleveland State, said he has ridden the HealthLine regularly since it opened and is encouraged by the improvements along Euclid.

“It was not nearly as nice before,” Hall said. “Now there are a lot of nice restaurants.”

The 8-year-old Cleveland HealthLine is considered the model for Indy's proposed Red Line and for other cities considering or building BRT lines as a cheaper alternative to light rail.

In Cleveland, the annual cost of $7.2 million to run the BRT is 30 percent cheaper than the standard buses that used to run on Euclid. That’s because the buses travel faster, so fewer are needed — and they hold more passengers.

But Cleveland didn’t raise taxes to run the HealthLine. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority already was largely funded by a 1 percent county sales tax that provides 70 percent of its revenues. Local sales and property taxes currently provide IndyGo with just 29 percent of its bankroll.

From downtown Cleveland, buses pass several of theBuy Photo

From downtown Cleveland, buses pass several of the city’s top institutions: Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals and the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Photo: John Tuohy/IndyStar)

Indy’s referendum

The proposed tax increase that Marion County voters will consider Tuesday is for much more than the Red Line, though it is a key impetus.

Revenue from the tax increase would generate $56 million a year in operating funds for IndyGo, allowing buses to run longer with shorter waits. It also would pay to run the Red Line and two other future BRT routes over the next decade.

Construction of the first leg of the Red Line would cost about $100 million, with most of it funded by a potential $75 million federal grant. That leg would have about 298 stations and run from 66th Street in Broad Ripple south to the University of Indianapolis.

 

The Indy Chamber and other referendum proponents contend that the same sort of economic development that revitalized Cleveland could happen along BRT routes in Indianapolis.

They feel so strongly that they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on publicity campaigns trying to persuade voters to back the tax hike.

The Chamber has formed a political action committee, Keep Indy Moving Foward, that has raised $449,000 for an advocacy campaign — mailing fliers and making yard signs.

Large employers and Chamber members favor better public transportation because it gives them a larger pool of workers from which to draw and reduces tardiness, absenteeism and turnover.

Also pushing the measure is a congregation of churches representing riders, called IndyCan. The group's executive director, Shoshanna  Spector, said church volunteers are operating phone banks and holding community rallies. They have made 153,000 phone calls and secured commitments from 20,000 people to vote for the referendum. The non-profit, which has $250,000 for the campaign, views public transit as a social justice issue because it helps low-income residents get dependable transportation to work.

The opposition is less formidable and not as well funded.

A band of north-side residents and small-business owners, called Stop the Red Line, depends on small individual donations to buy signs and make phone calls. The group asserts that a better place to put the first BRT would be on the east and west sides. The Red Line will only disrupt already thriving neighborhoods along College Avenue, destroy the area's character and cause traffic problems, the group claims.

Lee Lange, a Stop the Red Line founder, said the city should bring the bus system up to speed before reaching for such an ambitious, expensive and potentially damaging super-project like the BRT.

"Things are developing on their own so we don't need that here," Lange said. "The line should be placed where people ride buses the most. I fear that in five years we will have this bright, shiny infrastructure project that nobody uses or is obsolete because of innovations in transportation, like Uber and Lyft. I wish Indianapolis would be a leader for once rather than a follower."

Ultimately, voters must decide whether they want to pay to upgrade bus service and support bus rapid transit. But even if they endorse the tax hike, the City-County Council would have to approve the measure before it could take effect.