IndyGo Red Line celebrates troubled first birthday

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INDIANAPOLIS– It was a year ago today that dozens of IndyGo supporters gathered on the south lawn of the Indiana Statehouse to celebrate the launch of the Red Line with a stop conveniently located at the corner of West Washington Street and North Capitol Avenue.

At a cost of $96 million, the 12-mile long bus rapid transit route linked Broad Ripple Village on the north end of Marion County with the University of Indianapolis campus to the south with stops downtown and in Fountain Square along the way.

Planners predicted the Red Line would carry 11,000 riders a day on sleek, silent electric buses that could run 275 miles without a recharge and voters responded in 2016 by approving a transit income tax that funneled more than $55 million into IndyGo’s coffers in the first year which a newly established foundation was supposed to supplement with a ten percent match.

By the time the Red Line celebrated its first birthday it was clear that all those predictions were too wildly optimistic.

“That prediction was made with several other factors in play that we have changed and that we had to adapt to so it is not the same,” admitted Lesley Gordon, Director of Public Affairs and Partnerships for IndyGo.

In its best month, its first month when the fares were free, the Red Line averaged 8212 riders per day.

During its worst month, after IndyGo started charging for rides again following a fare hiatus in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Line carried on average 1660 passengers per day in the month of May.

On its one year anniversary, the Red Line boasted an average of 4053 daily passengers through the end of July, roughly 37% of the goal predicted by IndyGo leadership in the run up to the transit income tax referendum almost four years ago.

“The numbers have not added up,” said State Senator Aaron Freeman, a Franklin Township republican who served on the City County Council during the Red Line’s inception. “Ridership has not been as promised. Funding for it is almost 100% now dependent on the Marion County taxpayer. Taxpayers are in now over $170 million to this point.”

The enabling legislation passed by state lawmakers that permits local transit entities to approach voters and ask for a dedicated income tax required IndyGo to establish a tax free foundation to raise 10% matching funds to the first year of income tax revenues, due on the one year anniversary of operations.

The Indianapolis Public Transportation Foundation faced a deadline today to raise approximately $5.5 million to satisfy IndyGo’s commitment to supplement the new income tax revenue stream with more millions due in the year ahead.

To date, IPTF reports it has $65,000 of donations in hand, another $20,000 in the pipeline and has dispersed $15,000 in CARES Act personal protective equipment funding.

“Part of this deal, what voters were told going to the polls in the fall of 2016 when this was approved, is that IndyGo would raise ten percent privately,” said Freeman. “They’ve not done that. Period. They’re not going to be capable of doing that. Period. So now the taxpaying citizens are again on the hook over $170 million and IndyGo is not holding up their end of the deal.”

IPTF is advertising for a new leader as current Executive Director Roscoe Brown has notified the Foundation’s Board that he intends to retire at the end of the year after falling 99.982% short of his funding goal as mandated by state statute.

“We are in total agreement of following that state law and the state statute and putting forth every effort we can to raise the dollars needed,” said Gordon. “Technically there’s no penalty for that, so understanding what that means and how we move forward is definitely on the table as well.”

Not only is there no penalty hanging over IndyGo for failure to reach its foundation mandate, the city of Indianapolis, technically on the hook for the fundraising shortfall, also does not face sanction if it refuses to make up the difference.

“This is 100% falling on the backs of the taxpaying citizen of Marion County,” said Freeman who unsuccessfully sought to pass legislation to hold IndyGo more financially accountable during the past General Assembly.  “Unfortunately, folks are not living up to their end of the bargain.”

In two weeks IndyGo will present its proposed 2021 budget to the Municipal Corporations Committee of the City County Council.

That spending plan calls for a six million dollar budget increase to $117 million in the coming year.

“We need to start focusing and aligning our mission with moving people and not just a forty foot or sixty foot bus and making partnerships that think outside the box,” said Gordon.

“I think we need to push ‘pause,’” Said Freeman. “I think before we expand the Purple Line and the Blue Line, we need to see if the Red Line is actually going to work. The roll out was not good. Ridership has not been good. Obviously the financial part of this is a huge concern if you’re a taxpaying citizen of Marion County.”

Design work on the proposed Purple Line to connect Lawrence with downtown Indianapolis is expected to be completed by the end of the year as planning continues on the Blue Line along Washington Street from Cumberland to the west side.

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