Red Line celebration marks launch week of electric bus line

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said he rode IndyGo’s new Red Line route from the north side to the lawn of the statehouse today where he attended a ceremony marking the launch of the nation’s first battery-electric rapid-transit bus system.

“This is a long slog. This is eleven years to this morning,” Ballard said. “We had to get laws changed in the state of Indiana so that we could do regional mass transit here in central Indiana.”

That law, passed inside the building just behind the ex-mayor and other speakers at the celebration, permitted transit agencies in Indiana to go before voters and ask for a special tax to fund service improvements.

IndyGo was the first such agency to try the new state law as Marion County held the first referendum in 2016 and local voters were the first to tax themselves $54 million a year to expand bus service.

Along with a massive federal grant, work was begun on the 13.1 mile route from Broad Ripple, through downtown and on to the University of Indianapolis last year.

The Red Line took its first riders Sunday.

“Today is about a celebration of possibilities, ingenuity and determination as Indianapolis continues to grow and prosper. Our transportation network has to grow with it,” said Congressman Andre Carson, a democrat from Indianapolis. “Transit is truly an investment in our future. These improvements will not only benefit Hoosiers who work here now but future generations. That’s why I fought to insure this project received $75 million in federal funding for the Red Line.”

Planning for the Red Line project may have started under Ballard, but the buses began to run while Mayor Joe Hogsett was in office.

“A quicker transit with buses at ten-minute intervals is a victory for those who choose to ride,” said Hogsett, “and it is a victory for those who must ride.”

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said less than ten percent of the clientele his agency services has access to a privately owned car.

“For the people that we serve, this is huge,” he said.

City County Council President Vop Osili said the Red Line and other anticipated route improvements will expand economic opportunity throughout Marion County.

“The Red Line, and the Blue and Purple Lines, when they arrive, make Indianapolis a more equitable city.”

IndyGo is literally banking its financial future on the success of the Red Line and those other route enhancements.

The bus system carried approximately six thousand riders every day on the route that became the Red Line.

IndyGo is expecting that number to climb to 11,000 daily.

“We hope that we will see steady increases between three-, five-, ten percent over time,” said Inez Evans, IndyGo’s recently arrived president and chief executive officer. “It should take a year but if it takes longer, we made the investment and we will continue to serve it.”

From a high water mark of 10,500,000 passengers in 2013, when IndyGo offered free fares in conjunction with the arrival of the Super Bowl, overall ridership numbers slumped to approximately 8.8 million last year.

During the first six months of 2019, IndyGo reports ridership has roughly plateaued with the previous two years.

“When the decline began is when we took frequent service and made it longer,” said Evans. “We’re bringing back a more frequent faster service to one of our fastest routes and so, therefore, we believe the customers will come back.”

It was on October 1, 2017, when IndyGo began collecting revenue from a new transit tax paid for by workers who live in Marion County.

Since that time, approximately $100 million has been raised.

In the enabling legislation to permit the transit tax referendum, state lawmakers directed that bus agencies establish tax-free foundations to match up to ten percent of the revenues they would receive from new income taxes.

In February of 2017, city county councilors were told by IndyGo Board Treasurer Greg Hahn that such a foundation was in the works to raise funds to extend the buying power of the newly established tax revenues, though lawmakers didn’t establish a penalty if such a 501c3 corporation was not approved.

IndyGo finally received IRS approval of such a foundation this summer though there is no indication that the Indianapolis Public Transportation Foundation Inc. is staffed or operational.

If such a foundation had been in effect at the time the first tax revenues were raised, IndyGo would have up to an additional $10 million on hand to fund its operations and expansion.

“We’re in the process of putting that together,” said Evans. “We will do a full accounting on our website to be sure that we are clear and accurate and transparent on where we are with this organization as well as the amount of money that is due.”

Evans said she is exploring naming rights for the 27 new bus shelters along the Red Line route as a potential revenue source.

IndyGo’s proposed 2020 budget includes $111 million in operating funds, an increase of more than five percent compared to 2019, and nearly $100 million in capitol costs.

City County councilors will begin considering the budget during hearings later this month.

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