Massive transit

Dateline: Sun 27 Jan 2013

To be against against mass transit in Indianapolis is to oppose progress, the urban poor and the core of the city. Essentially, if you are against it, you are writing the death certificate for Indy.

That, at least, are the points made in various opinion pieces that the Indianapolis Star prints. The biggest promotor is metro/state columnist Erika Smith, who really needs to get some new material. We get it, Erika, we get it.

Today the Star has devoted an entire page in its Conversations to an urban analyst named Aaron Renn, who is also on the bandwagon. He is responding to Andrea Neal's recent, lone opinion piece stating that mass transit really is not a great idea for this city.

Honestly, I don't know the truth or what's right or wrong. I'm not even sure if mass transit means simply light rail or includes our wretched bus system, which does need improvement. So often, those on the soap box do not distinguish. That's because what they are running is largely a PR campaign.

I do know what that looks like, and I wonder who is leading this one? I'm not talking about the PR houses that put out the notices re: meetings on mass transit, but who stands to gain financially?

Contrarian bloggers Pat Andrews and Gary Welsh have sounded dissonant notes about the practicality and cost of our mass transit dreams. Check them out if you're so inclined....

Following the old adage, "follow the money," I learned that Mr. Renn is an urban affairs consultant with an Indiana University education. OK, that's hardly damning. He's probably a great guy with no dog whatsoever in this fray. I just wonder how he pays his mortgage, because I know the Star is not paying squat for him to write polemics. As for the others, Neal is a teacher, Welsh a lawyer, Andrews is a longtime neighborhood activist, etc. The Star notes that "this article" by Renn "was first published in his Urbanophile blog." We can be sure he's not making any scratch on that, either. 

My favorite part of Mr. Renn's Linked-in bio is his award from Chicago in 2009. (It's the only listing under "honors and awards.") He says it better than I could:

"I am a leading national writer on urban affairs and have been a policy advisor to senior leaders in several public and private sector organizations in this space. Among my endeavors in this area, my plan for public transit in Chicago won first prize in a global innovation competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce."

I was not aware they had a problem with public transit in Chicago. If Chicago has a problem with public transit, then Indy really is screwed.

Good luck figuring it out, people.




Gary Welsh [unverified] said:

What really bothers me, Ruth, is how none of the discussions about the need for metropolitan mass transit deal with the issue of why people choose to move to the collar counties instead of living in Marion County. I suspect people who make that choice would list 1) schools, 2) taxes and 3)crime as their top reasons for moving out of Marion County. Connecting mass transit with the suburban counties does nothing to change the outflow of residents. The only thing certain is that it will lead to significantly higher taxes to support mass transit. Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority only came about in the 1970s after the CTA started going broke because ridership declined so much as more and more people moved to the suburban counties. They created the RTA to expand mass transit to the suburbs, along with the higher taxes, and they still kept building more and more expressways, toll roads, ramps, etc. to move people who chose the automobile over public transportation. The RTA was always coming back to the legislature seeking bailouts because they couldn't generate near enough money from passenger fares to operate the spawning system of rail and buses that extends throughout Cook County and the suburban counties. People forget that when Indianapolis used to have trains criss-crossing the city, those were all operated by private companies without public subsidies. Unless you can convince people they have to give up their automobile, building more bus lines and adding new rail lines won't make a demonstrable difference. At the same time they have this plan on the table, look at all the highway expansions and improvements taking place right now and that are on the drawing board to make travel by automobile even more convenient. All things considered, it seems people only choose mass transit when the autombile is no longer a viable mode of transportation for them, or is just too impractical. If I lived in Manhattan, I wouldn't own an automobile. It would be a waste of money. I can't see any system being built here that would be preferable to the automobile. Hell, I've got neighbors who drive their cars to work every day when they only live 5 or 6 blocks from their office.

2013-01-27 17:55:59

DMC [unverified] said:

I'll not vouch for the accuracy of Renn's writings on Chicago's transit problems, but he *has* written extensively about them (again, not sure of the accuracy).

However, it seems like you could have read them prior to writing this post, making him sound like a dilettante, with nothing to say. From having followed his Urbanophile blog for several years, I *can* vouch* that he is a deep thinker on urban issues and development.

2013-01-27 19:23:47

Paul K. Ogden [unverified] said:

I don't get Aaron Renn. Previously he was against Indy's mass transit expansion then he suddenly switches 180 degrees? Very strange. He explained it in one of his columns, but the explanation sounded hollow.

Since when does the Star publish editorials that have already been published someplace else?

2013-01-27 19:26:37

hendy [Member] said:

Gary ignores several reasons why people moved to the donut counties: 1) fewer dark skinned people 2) they could; low interest rates and awful tract homes build of matchsticks 3) lower taxes and in some cases lower infrastructure costs in the short term 4) gas was lower priced back then 5) Indy kind of sucked for a long time and 6) politics.

Bloomington, where IU is located, one an award for the best mass transit system for a city of its size in the US in 2011. It's wonderful, and serves the needs of many and is well-used. Yes, it also serves student needs, which with 50,000+ of them, is formidable.

I know that these will seem like partisan rubrics, but these things are real: climate change is here, and we did it, and we need to reduce our contributions towards it. We once had a reasonable system until the trolley tracks were pulled up, and zoning made Indy and the surrounding counties into a car-owner, strip-mall world. It has to stop. Nay-sayers can stare at the overwhelming evidence and still say nay, but Indy was especially good at ignoring its bus system, especially for disadvantaged travellers (like my autistic brother) for decades. It can't go anywhere but up.

Chicago? Their problem. Indy has its own. For a long time, it made itself "attractive" to business with low taxes, only to find its sewers caved in and overflowed, and the donut townships and counties from Center Twp got favorable tax breaks so that even sidewalks in a neighborhood aren't a certainty. It's going to take a real champion to get it done. No one has the political will for it. Cut cut cut until it bleeds from a thousand cuts, that's what North Alabama is all about these days.

2013-01-27 21:21:22

Mark Small [unverified] said:

I lived in Chicago and in a suburb of Chicago. I used the bus and the "L" (that also is a subway in part) in Chicago. I commuted on what was the Burlington Northern but now (I am pretty sure) is the RTA. A LOT of people used the train. Indy's mass transit sucks. When I lived in West Lafayette the bus system of Greater Lafayette was better than Indy's. We need to improve the bus system. To build a rail system here, however, would be to invite vultures drawn by the redolence of corruption. The original Interurban system in the early 20th Century was purchased by GM so the system could be scrapped and people forced to rely on the autombile. I guess GM's plan worked. To build arail system now would be an enormous expenditure wth marginal benefits. Improve the bus system, elect a new Mayor and City-County Council, and plan a real future without TIFs and bennies for well-connected pals.

2013-01-28 04:51:10

sjudge [unverified] said:

If Pat & Gary & Paul are agin it, then gol durnit, it just might exist

2013-01-28 06:52:43

Katz [unverified] said:

The push for mass transit is done by CITRA. It's not that hard to track down their leadership and published plans.

That said, there is a plan and it specifically speaks for expanding bus service and Bus Rapid Transit (special bus lanes and express busses) as a first-tier improvement before any discussions of rail (light or otherwise) take place.

There were elements who were worried/upset/concerned that moving to a regional transit structure, instead of just "IndyGo" would mean that IndyGo would lose its political clout and that it could weaken its union(s).

2013-01-28 08:06:53

rob [unverified] said:

Hendy, you bring up some points about people moving to the burbs....

First of all, the population in center township has been declining for generations, not just the current generation. The point is that people are not moving out, they are just not moving in.

Going over your points
1) fewer dark skinned people
Maybe, so what? More likely the combination of a higher crime rate and higer taxes keeps people from moving into downtown or into center township.

2) low interest rates and awful tract homes build of matchsticks

Again so what, Ascetics aside, people actually care about lower housing costs and having more living space.

3) lower taxes and in some cases lower infrastructure costs in the short term

So people should live downtown and pay higher property taxes in order to make up for what is not being paid by the subsidixed stadium, fieldhouse, downtown hotels, Lilly Corporate Center for the stadium. Fix this inequality and people will have one less reason to avoid moving downtown.

4) gas was lower priced back then
It is not the price of gas, transportation costs and commute times about with a few percent of what they were forty years ago (1973).

5) Indy kind of sucked for a long time

Still sucks, there is not a decent grocery downtown, nor a decent discount store. IPS still sucks.

6) politics.

same as it ever was..

One point you leave out, is that people live where the jobs are. The burbs have lots of jobs and are not limited to jobs at downtown law firms or bars.

2013-01-28 10:33:56

Ms. Cynical [unverified] said:

Mass transit isn't just for those living in the 'burbs.

I live well inside Marion County, and I'm miles (at least 2-1/2)from the nearest bus line -- yet in the 1930s, a bus ran within a half-mile of my house.

If I'd have to hike to that bus today, I could ride it only to downtown. Not to Castleton or Broad Ripple or anywhere else useful.

The lack of useable public transportation makes us an urban backwater.

2013-01-28 12:14:46

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

I am certainly not nearly as well-schooled on this issue as most of the people commenting.

But, I hope that the needs of the physically disabled and poor (especially senior citizens) are not being downplayed in this debate.

I live in a donut county (my family moved here in 1957). I cannot drive to Indianapolis or in Indianapolis now due to physically disability.

A mass transit system that would allow me to hop on a bus or train and get to and then around Indy would be a Godsend. But it is even more of a need for the disabled/poor who live in Marion County.

The small town where I live has a very effective public transit plan so that no one is left out on mobility. I don't see why this can't be the case in Marion County.

2013-01-28 14:38:39

crossedwires [unverified] said:

So we dont plan the next 20 years out because the last 20 ears people were migrating to the ring counties. Hate to be your financial planner. You need to look 10-20 years out, as most planning does. Trend analysts have been predicting reverse migration back into the cities for the last 10 years. Its already happening, and on a bigger scale elsewhere, it will be happening here in the next 10-20 years. Those suburban kids that grew up into 20 somethings are rebelling against the suburbs, and their empty nester first ring babyboomer grandparents are tired of rambling abount in 4,000sf mcmansions. they are leading the edge back into the city. Why? the best healthcare, the best recreational amenities and most likely the best entetainment venues are/will be located within the central core. That is a generalization and not Indy specific, yet.

2013-01-28 16:47:47

rob [unverified] said:

Crossedwires, I would not want you as my financial planner. Even though you say trend analysts have predicted reverse migration into the cities, actual census data (looking over the last fifty years) does not support this for Indianapolis, for center township. Making financial plans based on what you want verses what actaully is, is just a another way of going broke.

It is reasonable to plan while considering a twenty year or longer timeline, but planning should be based on the actual trends. For Indianapolis, this means paying attention to those census figures showing that the trend is to move away from center township.
Marion county has about 30% more people living in it than fifty years ago, but the population of center township went down by 60% in that time.

Center towship went from a population of 333,000 in 1960, to a population of 143,000 in 2010. marion county (which includes center township) went from a population of 700,000 in 1960 to 903,000 in 2010. I would bet that most marion county residents commute around the ring verses going into the center of the county.

As far as the best being in the core, you might think about where you find the best hospitals, the best recreational areas, and the best entertainment (broad ripple, my opinion). None of these are found in center township. You can't even find a decent grocery downtown.

Again, plan based on the world you live in.

2013-01-28 17:56:56

Aaron M. Renn [unverified] said:

For the record, the Star didn't pay me anything, nor do I have a financial stake in the transit outcome.

I have always supported expanded transit for Indianapolis. However, I believe that a lower cost bus network is the right answer and that Indy should not build an expensive rail system. Most cities of Indy's size have much bigger and more heavily patronized bus networks, so there is clearly additional demand from cities of Indy's size and development type.

People may indeed move to the suburbs for better schools, lower crime, and lower taxes. As soon as someone presents me with a credible plan for how Indianapolis would ever be even moderately competitive, much less superior, to the suburbs on any of these items, I will happily consider that program instead of changing the urban core basic product (of which transit is a part).

As for Chicago's system, their problem is that most of their rail infrastructure is 100 years old and requires rebuilding, with no funding. It's the same equation as everywhere. I'd say 100 years out of the original infrastructure is pretty good. They also funded operations with highly volatile real estate transfer taxes (in part), which cratered in the recent housing collapse. I would note that Chicago as a whole has many problems, which I've documented extensively in recent years.

2013-01-29 10:06:43

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