On the ballot: Marion County Transit Referendum

Bus service could expand if transit referendum passes

By Marianne Coil

Voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to affirm a mass-transit proposal by answering Public Question No. 2 on their ballots. If the referendum passes, the Indianapolis City-County Council will consider whether to implement a .25-percent local income tax to enable IndyGo to run buses more frequently, later at night and on weekends. Revenues would also be used to build two east-west bus rapid transit (BRT) lines on Washington and 38th streets.

Service would be available every 15 to 30 minutes on most Southside routes, according to Bryan Luellen, IndyGo director of public affairs.

img_2878The proposed Route 56 would provide hourly access down Emerson Avenue to County Line Road, Luellen said. In fact, Route 56 would span the western border of Franklin Township, which would have no other service east of Emerson Avenue. This limitation has drawn the criticism of City-County Councillor Aaron Freeman, who’s also running for Indiana Senate District 32.

Freeman said his constituents are “overwhelmingly against” paying for something they’ll never use, and that he could not persuade planners to include his township in the expanded service.

Franklin Township has mostly single-family homes with large lots, streets with cul-de-sacs, and hostile pedestrian environments, according to IndyGo’s Luellen, pointing to low ridership in such areas. Therefore, IndyGo is exploring the role of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft as well as driverless cars to help to connect areas like Franklin Township to the transit grid, he said. 

However, non-traditional providers like Uber could not meet all the needs of people on fixed incomes, like the working poor, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. For example, Uber will use surge pricing to take advantage of an increase in demand.

“I don’t see how we would manage around surge pricing,” said Orion Bell, CEO of the Central Indiana Council on Aging (CICOA). Its fleet provides door-to-door service and shopping shuttles, but CICOA pays for discount vouchers for riders who need taxi and wheelchair-related services. The value of the vouchers cannot fluctuate during surge pricing. 

CICOA is a partner in the Transit Drives Indy coalition supporting the mass transit plan. Bell said his agency can do only so much. “In August, we completed 2,044 trips in Marion County. In that same month, we had to deny 757 requests for transportation,” he said.

Missed medical appointments are a frequent consequence of a lack of transportation for seniors and people with disabilities, Bell said.

But even expanded bus service could not help people with certain health problems. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and kidney patients on dialysis are unlikely to hop on a bus, said Peggy Bryson, executive director of Perry Senior Services in Southport.

Bryson’s agency uses volunteer drivers who are reimbursed for mileage. All together, they make 45 trips per week primarily for seniors’ medical appointments.   

The public option within IndyGo for people with disabilities is the Open Door paratransit service. Riders must be eligible under guidelines established by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A recent federal compliance audit of Open Door found deficiencies related to customer service. IndyGo is working with its paratransit vendor to correct problems that led to complaints about lengthy trip times, according to Luellen.

As transit improvements fuel economic investment, such activity can generate skepticism in affected neighborhoods. On the Northside, a group largely comprised of Washington Township residents formed Stop the Red Line, but they also oppose the entire transit plan.

Southsiders would see installation of the Red Line BRT service by late 2018, even if voters defeated the tax plan. Funding for construction of the Red Line has been recommended to Congress by the Dept. of Transportation and awaits approval after the first of the year. The route would run from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis.

According to spokeswoman Lee Lange, the Northside group sees a private-sector “end game” in the creation of the transit plan. Lange said realtors and developers are “lined up” to take advantage of spot zoning and property devaluation.

On the lookout, Southsiders say they will define property and land use near the new Red Line stops. A task force for this purpose was authorized by the Southeast Neighborhood Congress, which met Oct. 27 at Diversity Church on East Raymond Street.

The congress represents 13 neighborhood groups, including those in Fountain Square and Garfield Park. Representatives of the latter two spoke in favor of the transit tax.

Real estate agent Tad Aschliman told the assembly that out-of-state investors are looking for property to exploit as a result of the transit plan.  Aschliman said afterward that developers often lack knowledge of a neighborhood’s character and come into town “without a grip.” Aschliman said he backs the transit initiative.           

City planners don’t apologize for touting economic development as a reason to vote for the plan. They want to get poor people to jobs that aren’t accessible with barebones bus service. Supporters say the percentage of the county’s low-income households served by frequent service will increase from 13 percent to 42 percent, if the system is allowed to grow. 

Lange objects to IndyGo’s planned installation of bus-only lanes with 15-inch- high permanent boarding platforms. These would be level with the BRT bus to enable easy and fast boarding. Residents have protested a subsequent loss of mixed traffic lanes and parking space on College Avenue and Meridian Street.

The Southside leg of the BRT trip would not require bus-only lanes, but the route would have bus stations with level boarding.

“Central to all transit projects is a federal mandate that we work with the public to mitigate impacts,” Luellen said.

Lange said IndyGo should have considered buying more buses and hiring more drivers instead of adding infrastructure. IndyGo’s budget couldn’t support more buses and drivers without more money, but Lange said her group doesn’t oppose the local income tax per se. Still, she alleged IndyGo is underfunding the expansion and will resort to fare increases and property taxes to cover shortfalls.

“We are going to balance the budget,” Luellen said. “IndyGo is not a taxing authority and the agency will continue to be fiscally governed by the Indianapolis City-County Council.”

A Look at Cleveland’s Bus Rapid Transit System

Joseph Calabrese
Joseph Calabrese

As Marion County residents consider whether to raise local income taxes to support expanded bus service, voters could study the results of implementing a bus rapid transit (BRT) line in Cleveland, Ohio.

Eight years ago, officials cut the ribbon on the HealthLine, named for its sponsors, the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals.

Since then, the HealthLine has served 34.9 million customers and has generated more than $6 billion in economic development along the Euclid Avenue corridor, according to the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

Euclid Avenue was once known as Millionaire’s Row, the location of mansions belonging to John D. Rockefeller and other industrialists. As time passed, the area declined, and some local institutions even positioned the backs of their buildings facing Euclid Avenue.

The property owners along this “once grand corridor” pushed for a rapid transit line to bring life back to the area, which had high vacancy rates and low rents, said Joseph Calabrese, CEO and general manager of the Greater Cleveland RTA.

The traditional bus line along Euclid Avenue did not have a good image, Calabrese said, noting that investors, and not riders, clamored for improvements. 

The business community promised to build up the area, if the RTA would build the line. Before the HealthLine ever opened, over $3 billion had been invested, Calabrese said.   

Eight years later, the HealthLine is Cleveland’s most productive route, he said. “We ship our customers at the lowest unit cost.”

During the run-up to the BRT’s anniversary in October, the Cleveland RTA took a fare increase from $2.25 to $2.50. A contributing factor was the state of Ohio’s reduction of funding for transit to a “dismal” 63 cents per capita compared with the $57 per capita averaged from surrounding states like Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, he said. 

It’s too soon to see how the fare increase will impact ridership, Calabrese said, adding that studies show a temporary 4-percent loss of ridership in response to a 10-percent fare increase. Eventually, the riders come back, he said.

Rapid transit had cut the trip time down Euclid Avenue from 40 minutes to 28 minutes, and this saves money, he said.

The transit system branded the Euclid BRT line as a premium service, which helped to procure sponsors who have naming rights for 25 years. In addition, sponsors can pay for naming rights at bus stations for shorter terms. The sponsorships bring in about $350,000 annually, Calabrese said.

A second BRT line opened two years ago sponsored by Cleveland State University, and this agreement brings in at least another $125,000 annually. The CSU line connects the downtown campus with West Shore communities.

In public discussions about the plans for BRT start-up in Indianapolis, opponents have complained about the loss of traffic lanes to yield space to dedicated bus lanes.

“I’m not saying it’s easy for them to give up a lane of traffic,” Calabrese said. In Cleveland, studies showed they could reduce the number of lanes and still maintain acceptable traffic flow. “There’s a lot of give and take, no doubt about it.”

Another issue surfacing in the discussion of expanding bus service in Marion County is whether IndyGo should engage non-traditional contractors like Uber in areas of low density where buses don’t run.

Cleveland is poised to start van pools subsidized by employers, Calabrese said, adding that such arrangements have been popular for years on the West Coast. An employee of the company providing the subsidy would take home an RTA van and pick up other employees on the way to work. The RTA gives the employee a gas card and the vans are switched every 6 months for maintenance.

The RTA would keep a $5 million insurance policy on each van, he said. Van pooling has been authorized by the Cleveland RTA board and details are being worked out.

The RTA is also looking at pilot programs using shared mobility for people who don’t live in RTA service areas. Under this system, the RTA could subsidize rides from contractors delivering patrons to transit centers, he said. 

***UPDATE on Cleveland RTA

Although voters in Marion County can look to many neighboring transit systems to compare financing and service levels, the differences among systems are considerable.

Despite the Cleveland RTA’s highly praised success in implementing BRT service, the RTA faces a critical challenge that could result in service cuts and layoffs to avert a deficit of $30 million projected for 2019.

On Nov. 1 the RTA board reviewed scenarios that could be realized after the RTA loses its major source of funding, a sales and use tax levied on Medicaid managed care organizations (MCOs). In response to a federal mandate, these taxes will no longer be collected by the state of Ohio.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services said it’s illegal to tax only the managed care organizations that provide Medicaid services. Thus the tax was discontinued. 

The RTA is developing contingency plans in case funds are not available to replace the lost revenue, the impact of which would be obvious by October 2017, according to the summary presented to the board.

Public input from Cleveland citizens will be sought starting next April as officials decide how to implement their plan next November.

Contacted after these updates from Cleveland, IndyGo’s Luellen said the Indianapolis system does not depend upon revenues from taxes on Medicaid MCOs. 

According to 2015 figures from the Indiana Dept. of Transportation, Marion County received state assistance of $10,685,980, which was federal funding delivered through state grants according to a formula.