INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Reminiscent of famed comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s shirt neck pulling exclamation, “Tough crowd!” when facing a non-responsive audience, IndyGo Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications Bryan Luellen stood in front of a skeptical group of Broad Ripple residents at the Indianapolis Art Center and tried to explain the status of the Red Line project.
“We recognize that there are disruptions,” said Luellen at a podium just two blocks from the nearest Red Line construction zone on North College Avenue. “We recognize that not everybody loves this project. We are undertaking this project for public benefit. There are going to be some temporary disruptions so we appreciate your patience in the short term.”
There weren’t a lot of buyers for what Luellen was selling in the packed room of more than 100 neighbors and bus riders about the revolutionary mass transit plan utilizing electric buses that has metaphorically left the station.
Several years in the planning, months into construction, the build out of the Red Line has finally reached The Village, 13 miles from its end point on the other side of downtown near the University of Indianapolis along Shelby Street.
At a public meeting that was delayed a month because IndyGo was four months and $3.5 million short of its construction calendar, critics finally had the chance to raise the questions that longtime observers like Lee Lange have been asking for years.
“Nobody got their questions answered. It’s just business as usual with obfuscation bordering on something worse,” said Lange after failing to get Luellen to bite on a question about IndyGo economic development predictions for the Red Line route. “Why improve transit with something that is unproven, untested, so radical that it’s a pipe dream? It makes no sense.”
Lange’s criticisms notwithstanding, in 2016 Marion County residents voted to tax themselves $54 million a year to fund local transit improvements to match the $75 million the federal government is making available to build the Red Line.
IndyGo Vice President of Planning and Capital Projects Justin Stuehrenberg said Broad Ripple voters cast 70 percent of their ballots in favor of the new tax.
“You’re never going to win over everyone,” he said. “There are tradeoffs, pluses and minuses to this project.”
Count John Kniesly as one of those skeptics when it comes to IndyGo’s plans to provide safe passage on College Avenue for emergency response vehicles once double-long electric buses, bus lanes and bus stations take up the middle pavement of the busy thoroughfare.
“I live in the neighborhood. If something goes wrong every second, every minute counts,” he said. “Those intersections are cramped. They’re cramped right now for construction but now with construction you get a real hint of what it’s going to look like when the center of the road bus stations go in.”
Kniesly asked Luellen to furnish a copy of the public safety plan negotiated with IMPD, IFD and IEMS.
His first request was ignored before Kniesly was told to file an Open Records Act Request and then finally got a commitment from Luellen to post the plan on the IndyGo website.
“It’s been in progress for years,” Stuehrenberg later explained to FOX59. “We’ve been working with public safety to finalize the plan. Once all the construction details were finally nailed down that’s when we began working with public safety in earnest to finalize those plans.”
Red Line construction plans and schedules have been in the works for more than a year.
“Just in the last month we’ve all gotten to a point where we’re all satisfied with that plan and are ready to finalize that,” said Stuehrenberg.
Major Brian Mahone of IMPD Homeland Security said public safety officials are only just now beginning to understand the Red Line’s potential impact on emergency vehicles response.
“In a worst case scenario it could be a pretty big hassle. It could be a standstill,” he said. “Of course we’re worried about some congestion, what kind of speed we can get as far as getting around the district. I know Fire is looking at making sure they can get their apparatus where they need to go, so that’s kind of our main concern there to make sure that we can get to people in need.
“As I understand IndyGo has a traffic study that talks about the displaced traffic so that’s all the stuff we’re looking at to determine how we’re going to get our emergency apparatus around.”
The Department of Public Works just this month released a 2017 study that predicts motorists will spill into neighborhood side streets running parallel to College Avenue at least during construction.
“There are no studies. There are plans,” said Lange who has been studying the Red Line project for more than three years. “They have no studies that analyze and really look at, ‘What’s the impact on traffic? What’s the impact on safety?’ They have nothing. They have looked at existing data and analyzed it in a meta fashion. There’s nothing concrete. They will be doing their own traffic study 18-24 months after it’s fully up and running.”
IndyGo was scheduled to go before riders and neighbors January 14 to update the community and make its best pitch for support, but at the last minute that meeting was delayed until Tuesday.
Over the course of the last month, IndyGo President and CEO Mike Terry announced his intention to step down, a reconvened IndyGo Board of Directors meeting revealed construction was 114 days behind schedule and in need of a multi-million bail out from the project’s contingency fund to get back up to speed and crews were put on overtime and six-day weeks in an attempt to fast track the build out in order to meet a goal of transporting Red Line passengers by early September.
“Once we did start construction there were some delays due to utility reconstruction so that did delay us by about four months,” said Stuehrenberg who also cited uncertainty in federal funding as a reason for the lost construction time.
Stuehrenberg said no decisions have been made about scaling back features of the Red Line system to compensate for its unanticipated costs.
“When they say, ‘Oh, gosh, three and a half million dollars, that will help get to us faster,’ those are just our tax dollars being used to cover up inefficiency that’s been going on there for years now and we will continue to pay for this,” said Lange.
Luellen also told FOX59 that after more than two years of delays, IndyGo was in the process of establishing a non-profit 501-c-3 entity to raise a ten percent match for the funding it receives from the recently enacted income tax levy.
Such a non-profit is a requirement of the state statute that allowed IndyGo to ask voters for the tax in order to enhance the public revenues and force the transit system to not solely depend on taxpayers and riders for financial help.
Terry told city county councilors in January of 2017 that his staff was working on establishment of that entity which can collect donations or revenues from signage but not public funds.
Luellen said the plan was finally sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation shortly before the federal government shut down in December and is still pending.
The funding and bus stop construction haven’t been the only uncertainties plaguing the Red Line plan, so is the durability and the groundbreaking technology of its buses.
A Chinese bus maker BYD is currently building the 31 extended accordion-style battery powered buses IndyGo will need to run the Red Line.
Earlier generations of those buses failed in Los Angeles and Albuquerque where in the high dry New Mexico desert city a transit plan similar to the Red Line remains unfinished, awaiting traditional diesel buses, and the bus stations are targets for graffiti vandals and habitats for the homeless.
“We are looking very closely at those examples. Obviously we don’t want to repeat mistakes,” said Stuehrenberg. “Our buses are a newer generation than Albuquerque had received. Albuquerque had a lot of requirements around rush delivery that are not the case for us.
“Our order was placed over a year ago and so we feel they have had available lead time to deliver these buses,” he said, noting that one BYD bus has been on the streets of Indianapolis since last September. “We have tried to replicate the quality issues that they had on our buses and we have not been able to. We feel that every one of the issues that they raised are not an issue on our buses.”
IndyGo received its first BYD bus last fall and has been testing it since then. In March, IndyGo will receive the first regular shipment of its buses on a weekly basis as the vehicles will be used to train drivers.
“These buses haven’t been tested,” said Lange. “It takes 13 months to test new buses before they can be put into service, and these buses have not been tested.”
“Their end game is to get this built and get this built as quickly as possible.”
One issue facing IndyGo will be how many people will ride the new buses.
With room for more than one hundred sitting and standing passengers, the Red Line needs to nearly double its current daily ridership of six thousand people for the system to meet its revenue projections.
“Our best marketing tool is good service so we believe this project is going to provide good service to people and folks will see that and start to use it,” said Stuehrenberg.
“People on College Avenue do not ride buses and so why we didn’t put this where the people ride the bus right now, I don’t know,” said Lange. “’If we build it they will come.’ Unfortunately that is the city’s and IndyGo’s plan.
“Already the businesses are suffering. People are choosing to dine in SoBro, South Broad Ripple, because the parking is such a nightmare, so there are going to be business failures and shuttered store fronts.”
IndyGo’s ridership statistics have been mixed since 2012 so the system is counting on old and new riders to sign on not only to the Red Line but the anticipated East-West Purple and Blue Lines currently in planning and implementation at a time when private ride services such as Uber and Lyft are exploding in Indianapolis.
Kniesly said he voted for the Mass Transit tax but is now having second thoughts about how the Red Line is bisecting his community.
“I would sincerely beg our mayor, our City County Council…to take a hard look at this. Is this the best plan? Is this the best use for our resources? Are we safer?”
During the 2016 election, Mayor Hogsett refused to take a side in the tax debate and the Council approved the plan with some expressed doubts leaving taxpayers, residents and passengers no choice but to jump on IndyGo’s Red Line bus project and take the ride, bumps and all along the way.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.