ANDREA NEAL: Indy lacks critical mass for mass transit

2013-01-17T00:00:00Z ANDREA NEAL: Indy lacks critical mass for mass transitAndrea Neal nwitimes.com
January 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

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. Their lesson is: 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.

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.

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's 20 percent, 19 percent in Washington D.C. and 18 percent in Austin, Texas.

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

Finally, supporters are convinced that modern mass transit will entice all sorts of commuters who drive now. 

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.

Building rapid transit will not miraculously bring back job and neighborhood density.

The Indiana General Assembly needs to put a stop to what could be a boondoggle of historic proportion.

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. This column represents the writer's opinion. Readers can write her at aneal@inpolicy.org or in care of The Times.

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