Indianapolis eyes transit project to spur development in low-income area

Indianapolis city officials hope a new bus line targeting the needs of low-income residents will be the catalyst that transforms an underinvested corridor through economic development.

The $188 million Indianapolis Public Transit Corporation purple linea 15-mile bus rapid transit, or BRT, system will eventually connect downtown to the nearby town of Lawrence, providing access to jobs and health care for those who rely primarily on public transportation common.

City officials, however, are keeping their fingers crossed that the project, set to begin construction this month, will also encourage developers to build retail space, offices and affordable housing along a eight-mile stretch of the East 38th Street bus line toward downtown. to transform the neighborhood.

Bus rapid transit is a system designed to provide faster service by giving priority to fuel-efficient buses over cars by giving them their own lanes and signaling priority, with the aim of reducing their time in traffic and the number of vehicles on the road.

The Federal Transit Administration, which has provided $3.4 billion for 67 BRT construction projects nationwide since 1978, said these systems are gaining momentum with 12 projects under construction. Projects are underway in San Francisco, Houston and El Paso, Texas and Portland, Oregon. One is being studied in Atlanta.

“Bus rapid transit is becoming an increasingly popular choice for transit agencies, enabling communities to create equitable access to jobs and opportunities,” the FTA said in a statement.

Proponents say the transit system can also spur community revitalization and economic development.

In Indianapolis, many low-income residents of East 38th Street, especially those between College Avenue and Post Road in the northeast part of the city, support the upcoming project, which would bring new infrastructure improvements such as new drainages and curbs. But there are those who argue that the project will do more harm than good.

Historically, the racial dividing line between North and South Indianapolis, East 38th Street is subject to declining subdivisions and empty lots.

Before the pandemic, 36-year-old Simone Manson often walked along an unlit, sidewalk-less road on East 38th Street to catch the first of two buses to her nearest Walmart to get groceries.

“You’re there late at night or early in the morning and you’re just in the dark. It’s dangerous, especially for a woman,” she said.

Without a car, she has since reduced her trips to the store. However, adding the Purple Line would cut his 45-minute trip to the store to 22 minutes by allowing him to buy beef and vegetables at a downtown Kroger.

Former East 38th Street resident Charles Tony Knight, who has relied heavily on public transit for the past 40 years, fears the new line will have downsides.

“I’m more concerned that older people and young children have to walk an extra three or four blocks to get to the purple line,” he said, adding that some current bus stops would be removed. for the new line.

He added that the construction of the new line would prevent motorists from turning left and accessing many nearby black businesses.

The Purple Line is the second of what will be three bus rapid transit lines and would serve about 58,000 residents, about 60% of whom are minorities, the transit company, better known as IndyGo, said.

About 30% of those residents are also considered low-income with a median household income of $35,000 a year, IndyGo said.

City officials are moving forward with construction in an effort to attract economic growth and community development.

Indianapolis residents could look to northern Ohio for an example of how bus rapid transit could spur development and economically boost a community after the project’s completion in 2024.

In Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s HealthLine bus rapid transit system, which opened in 2008, runs on Euclid Avenue through downtown, connecting to world-class medical centers such than the Cleveland Clinic, federal transportation officials said.

The HealthLine has been a catalyst for the redevelopment and rehabilitation of old buildings into housing, shopping malls, business start-ups and investments in downtown and the desolate township of East Cleveland, line officials said. health.

The $200 million transit system has generated more than $9.5 billion in economic development by connecting the region’s two largest employment hubs, Downtown and University Circle. The road has become a destination for tech jobs and medical technology, art, architecture and centers of learning, city and federal transportation officials said. It has also been credited with creating new jobs, more than half of which are high-paying jobs, federal officials said.

Similarly, in Connecticut, CTfastrak bus rapid transit was introduced seven years ago and has been followed by more than $255 million in residential and commercial development, including housing, grocery stores and shopping centers. medical, Connecticut transportation officials said.

“We’re using this guideline as the backbone of the service,” said Lisa Rivers, transit manager for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said some cities believe people living in low-income areas rely more on public transport and therefore need better service to access jobs and services. basic needs.

“We have to find ways to help them,” he said.

Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, noted that there has been a growth of such projects in disadvantaged communities and communities of color.

“If done right, they have the chance to be transformative,” Puentes said. “The Indianapolis project is one that a lot of people are paying attention to. It’s not a dense, very sprawling place, so a lot of people are wondering if they can make it work there. It’s a very bold and ambitious.

Indianapolis officials want the new bus line to be the linchpin that attracts development and spurs the construction of new homes and offices.

“We want to encourage affordable housing development near the Purple Line,” said Scarlett Andrews, director of the City of Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development.

She added that the city amended its zoning code specifically for transit-oriented development along the bus line in preparation for economic growth and connectivity along East 38th Street, including a section has underutilized malls, declining housing estates and has turned into a center for public safety issues.

However, bus rapid transit is not without headaches.

In northern Ohio, Robert Winn, a board member of Clevelanders for Public Transit, said that while improved street and sidewalk layouts contribute somewhat to economic development, the transit service bus is far from perfect.

“Still, it’s not reaching its full potential,” Winn said, adding that commute times haven’t improved much and obstructions from traffic, delivery vehicles and pedestrians persist and plague the traffic system. public transport.

In Pittsburgh, one of the first metropolitan cities to introduce bus rapid transit about 35 years ago, transportation officials said some worried about how their initial success led to gentrification. Many people who once lived there and benefited from bus rapid transit were overrated and forced to move, transportation officials said.

Their bus rapid transit system was built along the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, which ran through the heart of East Liberty, at the time one of the largest black communities in the city, have said transportation officials.

“The development that’s happened has only really happened in the last decade,” said Adam Brandolph, spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Port Authority. “It really changed the whole fabric of the community for better or for worse.”

Freemark said gentrification is a potential side effect of any development in an underrepresented community.

“Gentrification is a possibility, it shouldn’t be discounted, and it’s something cities need to take seriously, as they plan for their future,” Freemark said.

Puentes added: “You have to be intentional…because these investments are going to drive up prices and people may not be able to stay. It’s hard.”

Ashley Gurvitz, Purple Line supporter and CEO of the United Northeast Community Development Corporation in Indianapolis, sees a bright future for East 38th Street.

“I see this project as a symbol for us to bring back our opportunities and bring security back along the corridor and restore homes and esteemed values,” she said.

Michael McKillip, executive director of Midtown Indy, said sections of East 38th Street were struggling to access hospitals and other important needs, but the Purple Line would solve those problems. “The bus route will connect people to the rest of the city,” he said.

Gurvitz said a medical device manufacturing plant opening along the road next month plans to hire 100 workers who live along or near East 38th Street. A grocery store is also under construction, she said.

City officials also plan to use $3 million in federal funds to increase affordable housing along the line.

“In terms of impact, the ability to connect people to jobs is very important in our minds as well as affordable housing opportunities near the purple line is something we hope to boost as a city,” Andrews said. .

Melvin Z. Madore