The Other Hand

Balanced commentary from an unbalanced mind.

Indy Transit: Green Line

The Green Line is maybe the most interesting line that’s been proposed. One one hand, it’s basically the same as the Fishers commuter bus that’s been quite successful. On the other, there are areas in the middle that aren’t as obvious. And it’s the one line that might be most likely as a rail system. So let’s look at it more closely.

The Green Line is slated to start in Nobelsville, run through Fishers and Castleton, near the State Fair Grounds, and terminate downtown. Looking at the map, it’s clear that commuter service is the reason for the Green Line; it’ll succeed or fail based on whether suburban residents on the east side of Hamilton County use it to get to work downtown. There are probably some good counter-commute possibilities for urban residents to get to commercial and retail jobs up north, too.

Study area for Green Line transit in Indianapolis.

The Green Line is also intriguing because it’s the best chance for rail transit in the current plans. The other lines would need to go over, under, or through existing streets, which makes rail a lot more difficult and expensive than Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). But the Green Line, as drawn, is aligned with the Nickel Plate Line — a seldom-used section of existing rail line. It’s the same line currently used by the State Fair Train, run by the Indiana Transportation Museum every August.

Is rail a big deal? It’s debatable; BRT can certainly work well and I have high hopes for the Red Line in particular. But rail has tangible and intangible advantages. Dedicated rail lines aren’t going to suffer from the same traffic problems and delays that BRT might, and it’s nice for riders to be away from traffic when waiting for a train. It’s also more obviously permanent: BRT lines are easier to move because they’re cheaper, which means they’re less likely to spur economic development. A brand-new rail stop would be major incentive to build nearby.

Current plans for the study show that there are three vehicle types under consideration light rail, BRT, and FRA-compatible light rail. The latter option is a more robust form of rail stock that meets improved crash-worthiness guidelines, and would be necessary if the Green Line would run on tracks used by freight trains. (More on that option in the Center Township section below.) For now, I’m going to skip around the BRT option. I’m not horribly opposed to it, but the intent here is obviously more focused on light rail. If the plan proposes BRT on a reclaimed Nickel Plate right-of way, it’s not really different from what I discuss here; if it proposes BRT on existing streets, then the planning likely would center around Allisonville Rd which doesn’t make for many major changes. So let’s talk about the rail possibilities, starting up in Hamilton County.

Hamilton County

The whole reason for the Green Line is up in Hamilton County, specifically Nobelsville and Fishers. These two cities alone represent about 130,000 residents. The commute is challenging, with heavy traffic on I-69 despite multiple added lanes. That’s led to the success of the commuter buses, and demonstrates the potential for other commuter options. There’s enough commercial activity in both cities to create some counter-commute opportunities too, especially as the downtown residential renaissance continues. Otherwise, there probably aren’t many destinations in that area. Conner Prairie would certainly benefit, and a shuttle service to Deer Creek Verizon Klipsch Music Center would get major use during concerts. But the Green Line will succeed or fail based on how well it gets Hamilton County residents into the city.

The southeast portion of Hamilton County, while growing fast, is still a fairly low-density area. Downtown Nobelsville has a good residential population, but most homes are in suburban low-density housing developments. So most residents will need a way to get to the trains. Indy Connect is planning for circulator buses, but I think a key will be to have commuter parking lots. The good news is that there are currently unused areas that could easily serve, like south of Nobelsville, 141st Street, and 106th Street (particularly useful with the new I-69 exit).

The existing rails start in downtown Noblesville, crossing a dozen city streets while following 8th St out of town. Noblesville would need some way to handle the trains, and I would bet on something like an elevated line to avoid constant traffic interruptions. South of Noblesville, the rail lines cross Allisonville Road on a bridge, but then have more road crossings, including some major streets. All these crossings are at-grade, and many don’t even have crossing guards. I’m sure that the plans will include some improvements for these crossings, and it’ll be interesting to see if any elevated crossings will be proposed.

Station Locations

The current map shows five stops from Noblesville to the county line, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see that reduced to four. Downtown Noblesville is an obvious must-have stop.  A stop is likely between 146th and 141st, which could also include shuttle service to Conner Prairie, Klipsch Music Center, Hamilton Town Center, and the nearby hospitals. The obvious Fishers stop is at 116th St — it’s the closest thing to a downtown that Fishers has, and the current train station is there.

The map shows another stop in between these two, but I don’t see any stand-out locations for it. The map also shows another stop somewhere before Castleton. 96th Street would be an obvious choice, but it’s already fairly developed but not at all walkable (a bad combination). A more interesting choice might be 106th, which has room for new high-density commercial or residential development.

Connections

I don’t know any stats on travel within Hamilton County, but I would bet there’s some demand for travel between Fishers, Carmel, and Noblesville, which would call for a northside east-west connection — perhaps an extended Red Line, which would also connect to the later-phase Orange Line. Beyond that, I’ve mentioned the 146th corridor already as a shuttle opportunity. Finally, I don’t imagine any useful connection to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport, which mostly serves corporate and private planes.

Northeast Indianapolis

This section runs from the county line to 38th Street. The two obvious destinations are at either end: Castleton Square (including commercial and hospital employment) in the north, and the State Fair Grounds at the southern end. There’s also an underdeveloped commercial district at Keystone Ave, but for the most part the middle is comprised of low-density postwar residential neighborhoods. Glendale Town Center is tantalizingly out of reach (except via shuttle). So this stretch has a mix of residential, leisure, retail, and employment destinations.

The rail lines are in decent shape here, as they’re still in use by the Fair Train, but there are several at-grade crossing that would need improvement. I count fourteen, with 82nd St, Allisonville Rd, Kessler Blvd, Keystone Ave, and Fall Creek Pkwy particular concerns. All are busy multilane streets, and some crossings are close to stop lights. Improving these crossings will be a major part of the plan, I’m sure.

Station Locations

The current basic proposed map shows stops near Castleton, 71st, Kessler Blvd, Keystone Ave, and 38th St. Castleton (82nd St) is an easy choice. It’s a congested area, but shuttle service to the mall and Community Hospital would serve a lot of people. The next stop is more difficult to site; development is light industrial to the east and low-density residential to the west. 71st St might be the simplest choice. The map pretty clearly shows a stop at Kessler Blvd, but a better choice would likely be the underdeveloped retail center at 62nd St, which is very close to the Allisonville Road crossing.

South of there, the proposal shows transfer stations at Keystone (Orange Line) and 38th (Purple Line). There are too many good choices in this area, mostly because Keystone is so close to the whole run, and has a lot of good retail opportunities along the street. There’s also the former Keystone Towers site, south of 46th St, which is ripe for development. If we can make the three lines meet at 38th street (see below), then there’s no particular need for a Green Line stop at Keystone. So I think I’d put a stop at 54th St — still close to Keystone, but closer to existing retail development, and to the American Village apartment complex to the west. 52nd or 56th would be possible too, but I don’t think I’d go north or south of those options.

Connections

3880 Orchard

I’d prefer to see a single station that serves the three lines at the Fairgrounds. That’s not easy; any choice requires routing one or two of the lines a bit to make it work. But creating a midtown transfer point would make trip planning a lot quicker and easier, would create good development possibilities, and would also make for good connections to the fairgrounds and the Fall Creek trail. This area would be my #2 priority for investment, after downtown, to make it work.The best choice is probably to use something close to the existing Fair Train stop. That has a bit of land to use, and has an easy connection to 38th St for the Purple Line. It’s also a short walk to the Fairgrounds, and there’s even an interesting building at 38th and Orchard that might be redevelopable as a transfer station. It would require some rerouting of the Orange Line, but I think that’s doable, and in any case the Orange line is targeted for a later phase. Add a fast connection to the Red Line, and you’ve really got a good motivation to spur development in a lagging section of town.

Center Township

The southern portion of the Green Line would run from 38th Street into downtown. This is where things get more speculative. At some point south of 38th, the Nickel Plate rails aren’t in functional condition. The right-of-way is still maintained, but it rubs shoulders with the Monon Trail from 34th St to 10th St. More space would be needed between the two. (I think, by now, the Monon is popular enough that co-opting the trail for renewed rail use won’t be considered.) There is probably enough space to include them both, but that would likely require at least a bit of property acquisition and maybe building demolition. I wonder a bit about elevating the rail above the Monon, like the El in Chicago. That would solve the problem and also solve street crossings. But that sounds expensive.

South of 10th St, the problem flips: instead of abandoned, the rail lines are very busy. The rail right-of-way at this point joins with the CSX line. That’s still in daily use for freight (and Amtrak, I believe). Obviously the rails are in full working order, but a commuter train would have to share tracks with freight trains. That’s what “FRA-Compatible Rail” means — the trains would have to be beefier, to better handle potential collisions involving freight trains. Scheduling also becomes a problem, as the long freight trains occupy a substantial share of the time on this section, and it makes for a difficult connection to the Transit Center. On the other hand, the CSX lines enable a connection to Union Station, which would be interesting. The CSX lines run through a less-developed part of downtown, east of the freeway; this is both bad (less current development) and good (more opportunity for future development).

Alternatively, the Green Line could continue using light rail, but instead switch to new rights-of-way to get into downtown — possibly taking up lanes on city streets. That’s obviously kind of difficult for traffic, and would probably require some more property acquisition. New light rail lines would allow for a good connection to the Transit Center, and would serve more developed parts of downtown like the Mass Ave district and Lockerbie Square. This choice is going to occupy a big portion of the study effort, and will turn on things like freight schedules and eminent domain that I can’t even guess at. So this is one area where I’ll be very curious to see what develops.

Station Locations

The current map shows stops at roughly 30th St, 22nd St, 16th St, 10th St, and Washington St. These are probably even more speculative than the stops on the rest of the route, due to the reasons I just mentioned. But what would fit best? The first stops are difficult to predict. The area is mostly lowish-density lower-value residential, with some light industrial areas. There’s a clear need for some stops but no obvious preferred sites. 30th and 22nd would have the best connections to bus lines, and so those are the likeliest choices. I could also see this reduced to one stop.

The stops between 16th and 10th will be greatly affected by the routing. The best choice might be one stop just north of 10th street, which would be right where the existing Nickel Plate right-of-way ends. I don’t think 3 stops are needed between 38th and 10th, so perhaps 16th St is the one to sacrifice. Another possibility would be to include the 16th St stop, and move the next stop south to about St. Clair. That would allow for a better connection to Mass Ave and Lockerbie, as well as the Tech HS campus. (If you give me the keys, I’ll put a stop here and call it Arsenal, for the connection to Tech and the echoes with London.)

The final stop is a thorny issue. The mapped transfer station at Washington St seems unlikely to me. There’s no particular destination nearby, so almost all the commuters from Hamilton County would need to transfer for the short hop into downtown. The rail connection to Washington St, at College Ave, is elevated above street level, with no place to put platforms or a station. And the road connections (or other open rights-of-way) aren’t obvious either. I don’t think this will stay as mapped.

Downtown Transit CenterThe Transit Center would be the obvious final stop. Besides getting commuters into the heart of downtown, it also allows connections to both the Blue and Red Lines. Routing is obviously a challenge, depending on the approach taken. If the CSX lines are used, a stop could be placed near Alabama St, giving a 200-yard walk to the rest of the Transfer Station. (This would also be a good spot for commuters heading to Anthem, Farm Bureau, and Lilly.) Alternative routing might allow for a stop right on Washington.

Union Station is also an interesting possibility. It’s a bit less useful for commuters, and if I had to choose, I’d pick the Transit Center every time. But there’s a minority of commuters who would be better served by a Union Station stop. It’s a better location for hotel visitors, Circle Center mall visitors, and events at Lucas Oil Stadium and the Convention Center. The existing building is simply gorgeous and perfectly suited to acting as, well, a train station. So even though they’re not far apart, I’d like to see Green Line stops at both the Transit Center and Union Station, if feasible.

Summary

The Green Line has the simplest goals of any of the transit lines — get commuters from Noblesville/Fishers to downtown and back — and that should help clarify the planning. The technical challenges are difficult. They’re solvable, but I think they’ll result in less impact from citizen input. The connection points in midtown are an interesting puzzle, but could really spark development possibility in an area that could really use it. The Green Line looks like the clearest chance for rail commuting in the current plan, so this might end up as the poster child for the rapid transit movement in Indy.

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Written by cisko

24 January 2013 at 07:20

Posted in Urbanism

Tagged with , ,

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