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A Rider's Take on Expanding Indy's Public-Transit System

"Exact Change Needed": A seldom-heard voice makes an argument in favor of the move.

It was November 2012, and I had spent most of the morning walking up and down Washington Street, stopping at various convenience stores and rifling through their shelves in search of engine oil. My car wouldn’t start. It was looking less and less likely that it ever would again. My stepfather, a mechanic, had me check numerous lights, gauges, and fluid levels before sighing heavily at the end of the line. Time of death: 9:17 a.m. I called both of my jobs with the bad news: I wouldn’t be making it in to work that day.

Replacing my car was out of the question, so I needed an alternate mode of transportation. After a few minutes on the IndyGo website, I discovered that the two bus stops across the street from my apartment on the east side were part of the Blue Line. The bus would come every 15 minutes, and it would take me approximately 40 minutes to get to work each morning. The Blue Line was my savior.

Having ridden grimy public transit in New York City, New Jersey, and Chicago, I was prepared for the worst. But I was pleased to find the Indy buses well-maintained and clean. I couldn’t understand why more young professionals I knew didn’t ride. Unfortunately, I soon found out: While getting to my downtown job would be a breeze, traveling just about anywhere else in the city was very tricky. Never mind the three transfers I needed to make to get to my favorite restaurant in Broad Ripple; I was more concerned that I couldn’t tell exactly when the buses I needed would arrive or depart. In a nutshell, for me, these are the biggest problems IndyGo faces: routes and frequency. Sure, I’ve dealt with the odd guy, smelling vaguely of hotdog water, leaning into my personal space and asking if I’m single. As far as life on the bus went, though, my experience was overwhelmingly positive. What irked me was the poor availability of service.

After two months of regularly riding IndyGo, I landed a great new job. With my salary, I could have easily afforded a car payment. But riding the bus was effective enough at getting me to work, and I was saving a lot of money. Not to mention the fact that I had grown to enjoy elements of my commute. On the Blue Line, I found a bus driver who would argue Marvel vs. DC comics with me at 7:45 a.m., as well as a new friend I began to meet for tea or tacos. Unexpectedly, I transitioned from a rider who was transit-dependent to one who was making a lifestyle choice.

According to IndyGo president and CEO Mike Terry, my experience—minus the problem accessing other parts of the city—is exactly what he’s hoping for more of here. “Public transit is not a last resort,” he says. “But people have to choose to make it a priority in their lives. We have plans to make that choice an easier one.”

Terry insists that they’re working internally on improving routes. But the real push to upgrade the system is being made by Indy Connect (a partnership of IndyGo, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority). That group would like to see five new rapid-transit lines—essentially buses with dedicated lanes and priority at traffic signals—implemented by 2025. As of now, at least three of those routes are in the research phase. The 23-mile Green Line would run from downtown to Noblesville using either on-street rail or bus options. The 25-mile-long Red Line would stretch from Carmel through downtown Indianapolis on its way to Greenwood, and the Blue Line would carry passengers from Plainfield to Cumberland. There are also initiatives to double the current bus service, create bike and pedestrian pathways that connect to buses, and improve the roadway and bridge systems.

"The largest industries downtown are hotels and entertainment," IndyGo president and CEO Mike Terry says. "With better public transportation, they save money on parking for employees. It would be easier for tourists to get around."

That all sounds nice, but the major stumbling block so far has been funding. Terry claims that the benefits of expanding our public-transportation system would justify the cost. “This is about economic development, not social services,” he says. “The largest industries downtown are hotels and entertainment. With better public transportation, they save money on parking for employees. It would be easier for tourists to get around.”

Indy’s public-transit system currently falls well short of those in the cities it competes with for jobs and visitors. With 346 buses, Cincinnati has nearly double the public transportation we do. And Minneapolis and Charlotte have already invested heavily in light rail. Indy budgets approximately $65 million annually for a fleet of just 155 buses, which isn’t nearly enough for a city our size. Sure, implementing Indy Connect’s plan would be expensive up front: The group estimates it would take $1.3 billion to build the first phase in Marion and Hamilton counties over a decade, requiring a .3 percent increase in those counties’ income tax. But the yearly operating cost of $136 million would be comparable to the amount our competition already spends.

Not surprisingly, there are those who strongly oppose the investment. Chase Downham, the Indiana state director for Americans for Prosperity, an organization founded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, is concerned not only about the local tax increases for Indy residents, but about “the overall cost of such a proposal.” Governor Mike Pence reminded supporters of the Indy Connect plan that the economy is still struggling, and “we ought to be reducing the tax burden on Hoosiers.” And last year, state Senator Brent Waltz (R-Greenwood) suggested his own alternative to Indy Connect’s plan: a proposal to widen existing highways and encourage businesses and institutions to fund bus stops near their locations.

Making it easier on drivers is hardly a mass-transit solution, but Waltz does appear to be genuinely interested in finding an answer. In January, he co-authored Senate Bill 176, legislation that would authorize Central Indiana counties to create their own public-transportation plans and to impose new corporate and income taxes to fund them. In Marion County, the income-tax increase would be as high as .25 percent and would generate as much as $45 million more annually for transit. At press time, the Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee had approved the bill, adding a controversial amendment that nixed light rail, among other points. But the people at Indy Connect seem encouraged. Executive director Ron Gifford believes the group has a “good bipartisan coalition of senators and House members to support this.” But he insists that the organization takes nothing for granted: “Absolutely no one assumes this will be an easy battle.”

The riders on my commute certainly don’t. According to a recent study by Indy Connect, Route 8, my part of the Blue Line, is one of IndyGo’s best-performing routes based on timeliness and frequency. But many of my fellow riders remember when it was as bad as most of the system. When I brought up the subject with a seatmate on the bus a few weeks ago, the woman shook her head. “It was terrible how crowded the bus would get,” she said. “We all wanted more buses, more often, but they kept telling us not enough people would ride.” Even today, I sometimes get on board to find it standing-room-only. Luckily, a man usually rises and offers me his seat. (One of the unspoken rules of riding the bus: No woman stands while men sit.)

"When the people of Indianapolis decide they're ready to invest in public transportation, we're ready," Terry says.

Despite the improvements to my route, IndyGo as a whole remains completely impractical. This summer, the screen on my phone cracked. As I researched the bus maps, I realized it would take 90 minutes and several transfers to get to the other side of town to fix it. Even if I was lucky enough to have a seat the entire way, I’d be worried about finding the right stops on the way back, and the trip would take another hour and a half. Months later, my phone’s screen remains broken.

Of course, that’s a minor annoyance compared to employees who can’t get to their jobs on Sundays unless they show up an hour early, or mothers trying to get their kids to preschool on time. If I miss my connecting bus, my worst-case scenario is having to walk and being 15 minutes late to work. For many other riders, those 15 minutes can lead to immediate unemployment. While I’m flattered to be a model for the kind of rider IndyGo wants to attract, it’s those workers who should be in the minds of lawmakers—and if SB 176 passes, the counties—as they decide where public transit goes from here. Riders like myself hope the powers-that-be get on the bus.

As Terry says, “When the people of Indianapolis decide they’re ready to invest in public transportation, we’re ready.”



Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.