Public Transportation can be a ride out of poverty. So why are the very first miles of the proposed Red Line Bus Rapid Transit System being constructed along a route running through trendy Broad Ripple and the high property value neighborhoods of Arden, Forest Hills and Meridian Kessler?
Access to transit in impoverished areas offers the promise of economic and educational mobility. Expanded opportunities for better jobs, schooling, and services are made available for people in efficient and affordable ways through quality public transportation.
Initial construction of the Red Line Bus Rapid Transit route with a northern starting point at 66th and College exposes the Regional Mass Transit Plan’s misplaced priorities. First in line to buy tickets on the Red Line won’t be those hungering for a better life. They will be those already enjoying the good life that is sought by current IndyGo riders. Still finding themselves at the back of the line, on the back of the bus-will be those whose concerns about their environment relate more to reducing gun violence, than reducing carbon emissions.
The bus fares purchased on the first and northern most BRT route will be by riders living in the 46220 zip code area. There, median yearly household incomes hover at $62,000.00 and unemployment runs at 6.5%. Contrast those statistics with residents living in all but one adjacent zip code located to the south, east, and west of 46220. Unemployment in those areas runs from 13.3% to 26.7% and median incomes range from $26,000 to a high of $39,000.00.
Marion County Transit Groups from IndyGo, CIRTA and MPO assert that funding for Phase 1 of the transit plan, the Red Line, has been secured. A special ordinance introduced at Monday’s City County Council meeting authorizes a referendum seeking funding for subsequent phases of a 5-year public transportation plan through an income tax increase. With implementation of future phases dependent on the outcome of the referendum, the question must be raised. Why aren’t the first BRT routes being constructed in neighborhoods populated with particularly low income wage earners and high unemployment rates who are totally dependent upon public transit to access employment and services?
It appears that the goals of officials and civic leaders promoting the current Red Line BRT route have shifted by prioritizing service to the “haves” rather than the “have-nots”. Recently unearthed notes taken during my first meeting with IndyGo Executive Director Mike Terry in 2007 are titled with a quote from him, "Choice vs. Necessity". By Mike’s own statements, the Purple Line running across 38th Street and Washington Street’s Blue Line were to be designated highest need and highest priority in allocation of transit enhancement dollars. It was from Mike I learned that 70% of IndyGo riders are categorized as transit dependent households. The costs for car purchase, maintenance, and insurance is so high that home maintenance costs become secondary to car expenditures in a majority of low income households. For that reason, a lack of reliable public transportation is considered a contributing factor to urban blight. Need, or necessity is why the very first implementation of a major BRT line beginning at 66th and College is a questionable allocation of scarce transit funds.
IndyGo's first priority is to serve "the least of these" among us-those who have no other alternative means to travel to work other than public transportation. Instead, "Choice" appears to supersede “need” in the redesigned transit plans that emerged around 2012. In the city’s publicized attempts to attract its share of Millennials as a place to call home, Millennials must be catered to and provided transit choices. However, the Millennials Indianapolis hopes to attract to live and work here are being recruited for professional positions with salaries that will pay enough to support the purchase and maintenance costs of a car. Their marketable talents allow them to afford rent or purchase housing in high cost living areas such as Downtown, Broad Ripple and Meridian Kessler. With "SoBro" now reaching as far south as 46th and College, the majority of North College Red Line users daily tough choice will be car or BRT-while 70% of their fellow IndyGo riders might choose between groceries or bus fare.
The initial mass transit routes focusing on the Green, Purple and Blue lines were supported by countless studies and recommendations made by the major transit groups and blessed by the Indy Chamber. Many transit grant dollars paid for publications showing graphs, maps, and economic wonder potential to sell the public on the need for light rail and BRT on those particular routes. Now, different routes are being espoused as "the best" based on more money spent and more studies undertaken. Which of the recommendations should the public believe are the "best"? The preferred routes change, as does the preferred mode of transportation, changing from light rail to BRT? Or simple express bus service?
Answers from IndyGo asking why the shift to Choice over Need by constructing the city's first BRT line on N. College centered on”TOD”-transit oriented development. TOD has been touted as one of the primary goals and benefits that will result from the current recommended mass transit plan. The up side-there are great promises of return on investment to be had-for developers. For proprietors of multi-generation owned restaurant and retail establishments located on North College Avenue-they foresee vanished parking spots for customers driving cars as leading to their demise. There's also the possibility that bus stop placement will not be located a walkable distance to certain existing businesses. The upside to this-investors will be able to snatch up those 1 and 2 story properties for a song and convert them to the multi story retail/ housing density mix being counted on for the Red Line’s future ridership numbers. Does North College Avenue need the artificial stimulation to prompt economic development? Or- is it already occurring there “organically”, as some nearby residents insist it is?
The greater need and opportunity for “TOD” is along the socially and economically hurting Blue and Purple routes rather than along the northern Red Line corridor. Abundant vacant and inexpensive land is available all along E.38th and Washington Streets to fit high density, affordable rent apartment complexes. An uptick in available, modern housing will serve as a catalyst to attract more quality businesses. Consider how improved access to jobs and an uplifted quality of life in these neighborhoods might also lower crime rates-making our city safer for all.
Scarce city budget dollars too often are allocated towards spending that reflects choice vs. necessity. The Midtown TIF which benefitted Meridian Kessler, Broad Ripple and Butler Tarkington neighborhoods was approved quickly by a Council vote. The Avondale Meadows TIF-sought to attract a grocery store for an impoverished food desert community, languished for years before receiving approval. Upscale, downtown high rise condos and apartment developments receive speedy, unanimous votes of Council approval while many affordable housing projects fall by the wayside.
Mega millions in city tax dollars are sent along to billionaire sport team owners so that more luxury suites can be added to a stadium already paid for by taxpayers. Yet-our first responders who put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis, are cheated out of the 3% salary increases promised them in their contracts. Now, the citizens in greatest need of efficient public transportation are taking a back seat in the bus system so that higher income riders can be the first to access wi-fi equipped buses.
Indy Go’s slogan for years has been, "People you depend on, depend on IndyGo". Never has that been truer than now. Seventy percent of current IndyGo riders are depending on leaders in transit and the city to make their rides to improved jobs and lives more dependable. An enhanced, modern, comprehensive county wide transit plan should reflect old-fashioned transit principles placing need before choice.
Voters shouldn’t allow transit and city leaders to rationalize placing transit choice ahead of need. Before a referendum seeking increased taxes to pay for an enhanced mass transit appears on any ballot, let those who love this city, show they love their neighbors as themselves. Transforming our transportation system must first focus on transforming lives and neighborhoods so that our city, and all who are in it might have the opportunity to flourish.
Indianapolis City County Councillor District 3