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Column: Indianapolis not suited for mass transit plan

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There is one inescapable reason that a regional mass-transit system will not succeed in the Indianapolis area.

“Put simply, mass transit needs mass – i.e. density.” And we don’t have it.

The quotation comes from two experts in urban transit: Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero of the University of California at Berkeley. They studied 59 rapid bus transit, light-rail and heavy-rail systems in 19 metropolitan areas. Their lesson: For mass transit to be cost-effective, job density and residential density must be high along the way.

Central Indiana does not have high-density employment hubs or neighborhoods to justify mammoth investment in public transit. Yet once again, the movers and shakers are pushing the Legislature to pass a bill that would be the first step of a costly process setting up a regional mass transit system.

Backers point out that their bill does not create anything itself but simply gives voters of affected counties the chance to decide if they want to join a Metropolitan Transit District and are willing to pay higher taxes for it.

Marion and Hamilton counties would go first, possibly voting this coming November. Stage one of the plan calls for a commuter rail line from Noblesville to downtown Indianapolis and doubling of bus service in the metro area. Eight more counties could opt in later: Boone, Delaware, Hancock, Hendricks, Johnson, Madison, Morgan and Shelby.

A referendum sounds fair but won’t be. Mass-transit advocates have at their disposal tax dollars to finance their campaign. TV and radio spots running now are paid for by the Federal Transit Administration, whose mission is to support public-transit development. Ordinary citizens can’t fight this.

Big money will be poured into a referendum because big money is to be made off mass-transit expansion. Consultants, contractors, lawyers, bond buyers and sellers, architects, engineers, bus builders, locomotive manufacturers and others will be salivating.

Latest census data underscore the no-win economics of mass transit here: 92 percent of Indianapolis workers drive to work, most alone but some in carpools. Three percent work at home. Two percent walk to work. Two percent use IndyGo, our highly subsidized albeit essential transit service.

That is a startlingly low figure compared to cities with successful bus and subway systems. It makes no sense to invest $1.3 billion — for the initial phase of the plan — into 2 percent of the workforce, especially when their transportation needs could be met more creatively and cheaply.

Furthermore, less than 10 percent of jobs are located in the “central business district” in downtown Indianapolis, a key predictor of mass transit success. Compare that to New York, 20 percent; Washington, D.C., 19 percent; and Austin, Texas, 18 percent.

Advocates say once an effective system is in place, it not only will attract economic development but will lure people to central Indiana to live and work. This is a pipe dream.

The Public Policy Institute of California studied more than 200 transit stations opened in that state from 1992 to 2006. The launch of new stations did not result in higher average employment growth in the areas surrounding them — after they opened or several years later.

“This finding runs counter to a goal of transit oriented development policy,” researchers concluded.

Finally, supporters are convinced that modern mass transit will entice all sorts of commuters who drive now. These are the so-called “choice riders” who will change their habits once the system is prettier and more convenient.

Some metro systems around the country attract choice riders. Portland, Ore., and Chicago are examples, but both have much higher employment density in their central business districts.

There’s a reason Indianapolis got rid of its world-class electric streetcar system in the 1950s. Hoosiers fell in love with cars and moved to the suburbs, creating development patterns that revolved around the automobile. Building rapid transit will not miraculously bring back job and neighborhood density.

The Indiana General Assembly is charged with making policy decisions for the good of all Hoosiers. It needs to put a stop to what could be a boondoggle of historic proportion.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

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