Just a few years ago, politicians and planners seemed on the cusp of realizing a commuter rail line between Indianapolis and the Hamilton County bedroom communities of Fishers and Noblesville.
Visions of walkable villages sprouting alongside gleaming train stations had developers salivating, as well as employers seeking a broader pool of workers now unable or unwilling to endure congested interstates.
The dream derailed when Hamilton County leaders last year declined to place a funding referendum on voter ballots. But the death of commuter rail might actually be a blessing in disguise for economic development in Indianapolis and the rest of Marion County.
Around the same time, Marion County voters approved a 0.25 percent income tax hike to build a nearly $100 million bus rapid transit (BRT) line. The so-called Red Line will be a 14-mile north-south line stretching from Broad Ripple, in the north, through Indianapolis and down to the University of Indianapolis, to the south. This line using electric-powered buses, and other BRT lines planned to crisscross the county in the years to come, has the potential to reinvigorate neighborhoods with transit-oriented development that could rival that of a rail line.
In fact, Marion County may have had the last laugh—at Hamilton County’s expense.
Untold thousands of Marion County residents in recent decades have moved to Hamilton and other surrounding counties, often due to the stigma of Indianapolis Public Schools and of some township school districts. That created a massive urban sprawl in surrounding counties—now choked with soaring infrastructure costs—and a hollowing-out of many near-downtown neighborhoods.
A loss of residents as well as property tax caps have left Indianapolis looking for additional sources of revenue that transit-oriented development could help fill.
“You need to extract more value from the land you already have,” said Jeff Kingsbury, managing principal of Greenstreet Ltd., a Zionsville-based real estate brokerage consulting firm working with the city of Indianapolis.
Power of density
Increasing density through transit-oriented development is a prime way to do that. Bus stops will draw mixed-used development such as apartments, condos, retail and office spaces, said Kingsbury, who has worked on transit oriented development in cities such as Chicago and Denver.
Higher-density also brings efficiencies when it comes to amortizing infrastructure costs such as roads and utilities.
In fact, the Department of Metropolitan Development has been re-writing zoning codes in recent years, which will help accommodate mixed-use development along the Red Line, noted Bryan Luellen, manager of marketing at IndyGo, the city’s bus system.
While the Red Line isn’t expected to be in service until 2019, the city and community groups already are looking at potential hotspots along the line, particularly where it will run along Meridian Street. One area of promise is a tired patch that includes vacant lots and storefronts at Meridian and 22nd Streets.
This likely spot for a bus station has the potential to become a miniature downtown, of sorts. City officials and Near North Development Corp. have conducted meetings this summer to gain more input from residents about what kind of development is appropriate.
The neighborhood is just south of Ivy Tech Community College and just northeast of Indiana University Health’s upcoming $1 billion medical center at 16th Street and Capitol Avenue.
Transit-oriented development is fundamentally about connecting residents not just to employment destinations but also to healthcare and other services, Kingsbury said.
“I think we’re well-positioned for it (development),” Kingsbury added. “The city has studied a lot of lessons learned from other communities and best practices.”
Pales to rail?
Indeed, while central Indiana once had one of the nation’s largest interurban commuter train networks, in the early 1900s, it has trailed similar-sized cities such as Columbus, Ohio in the public transit in recent decades.
Urban planners here could only watch and dream as cities such as Denver, Portland and Charlotte, N.C. have attracted billions of dollars in private investment along their light rail systems.
“It (development) works because people want to live along these stations,” said Harry Eggink, a professor of architecture and urban design at Ball State University.
Eggink and his students for years have modeled numerous types of transit-oriented development that could sprout alongside a light rail system in Indianapolis, including the now-doomed plans for commuter rail to Hamilton County via the Nickel Plate corridor.
Students came up with any number of concepts suited to characteristics of existing neighborhoods. Some included buildings sporting green roofs and wind turbines to those with room for urban gardens. All would be walkable, self-contained villages where residents could leave the car at home and jump on a train for work or to visit cultural attractions up and down the line.
Such concepts—and those actually built in other cities—were predicated on rail service but not on BRT.
Generally, “light rail would do a lot more (for development) because it’s permanent,” Eggink said, compared to a BRT stop that could be more easily relocated at a later date.
Eggink said that light rail generally also brings larger stations, which are more conducive to broader uses such as serving as a community center.
While the Red Line BRT is probably the next logical step for a city such as Indianapolis, Eggink said, “light rail is what everybody is going for” elsewhere.
Greenstreet’s Kingsbury concedes that BRT stations can vary in size. For example, lower-density areas could consist merely of a park-and-ride station, while a more substantial station would likely appear in a central business district. IndyGo’s Red Line plan calls for a number of stations with elevated platforms, resembling those of a light rail line.
But that’s not to say Red Line and other routes to come cannot “mirror much of the experience you will have with light rail,” said Kingsbury. He contends that the mode of transportation is less important than the quality and frequency of service—factors such as a safe and enjoyable environment. That, he added, “is more a predictor of success. That’s what we’ve found in case studies.”
There’s another benefit that’s overlooked regarding more-modest transportation modes, said Kingsbury, pointing to the experience thus far with Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail system, used for walking and bicycling.
A 2015 study by Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute found that property values within one-block of the eight-mile trail system soared 148 percent since 2008--or by more than $1 billion.
“I think we really need look no further than the Cultural Trail,” Kingsbury said.
The Cultural Trail has been credited for helping fuel a boom in residential development in- and on the edge of downtown in recent years.
In 2014, Milhaus Development completed a half-dozen buildings adjacent to the trail, known as Circa, which includes 264 residential units and commercial development. The trail links Circa residents to the Massachusetts Avenue Cultural District of shops, restaurants and galleries on downtown’s northeast quadrant.
As for that longtime dream for light rail in the Indianapolis metro region, the outlook is gloomier than ever.
The Nickel Plate rail corridor south of Noblesville has gone silent. An excursion train that ran between Noblesville and the state fairgrounds, in Indianapolis, has been pulled from service. The operator, the Indiana Transportation Museum, couldn’t afford to repair the tracks.
Meanwhile, Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness is pushing to turn the rail line into yet another recreational trail, a la the Monon Trail running from Indianapolis to Carmel.
Once asphalt replaces the tracks, and bikers and joggers get onboard, it will be all that much harder to ever return such a corridor to rail use.