By Wade Coggeshall
— In the first half of the 20th century, the greater Indianapolis area was recognized internationally for its public transportation network.
Now, not so much.
According to a study by the Brookings Institution, Indianapolis ranks 73rd nationally among cities whose neighborhoods have access to mass transit. That puts it behind such locales as Madison, Wis., and Salt Lake City, Utah.
"You used to be able to get just about anywhere in the state using some form of rail or bus, or a combination of the two," Ehren Bingaman said. "It's kind of sad to say that in 1934 we had a more robust public transportation infrastructure serving the region than we do today."
As executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority (CIRTA), Bingaman is trying to change that.
A South Bend native and a Brownsburg resident since 2007, he studied urban planning and political science at Ball State University. Bingaman originally wanted to be an architect, "But I learned when I was 19 that I could draw better when I was 12."
Instead, he was drawn to the idea of community and economic development. Especially to the policy side of that, which led to the poly-sci degree. Before going to CIRTA, Bingaman ran Fort Harrison's Reuse Authority. He loved it. He had a small board and nice resources at his disposal.
"And I was actually using my degree, so my mother was so happy," said Bingaman over a cup of coffee at Courthouse Grounds, following the Kiwanis meeting.
Then one day he was perusing the Indianapolis Business Journal when he read that CIRTA was seeking a new director. It piqued his interest because in one of his first jobs he was exposed to some of central Indiana's initial transit discussions. But Bingaman didn't consider applying until three unaffiliated people, and his wife, encouraged him to. Turns out CIRTA wasn't seeking a mass transit guru, per se, and Bingaman had a mixed bag of a background that proved to be a nice fit. He threw his hat in the ring and got the job.
That was five years ago this August. On his first day, Bingaman was CIRTA's only full-time employee. Now there are eight. Since then they've also established three mass transit routes, a 10-county ride-share program, and introduced Indy Connect, a regional transportation initiative between CIRTA, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, and IndyGo.
"Maybe (the policy discussion) isn't as far along as we'd like it to be, but even the fact the skeptics keep having to answer the questions, that's a demonstration of progress," Bingaman said. "I feel good about what we've done in the last five years."
There's much work remaining, however. So far CIRTA's main role has been as a public education and policy-shaping entity. The introduction of Indy Connect is the agency's tangible next step.
The process started with more than 150 public meetings throughout CIRTA's 10 participating counties, including Hendricks. They focused on transportation infrastructure and how residents commute. Those forums yielded more than 10,000 public comments.
Bingaman says they aren't trying to get us back to 1934 (funny as that sounds), but he believes there are improvements that can, and should, be made to our transit framework.
"Getting from Danville to Raceway Road is a lot different now than it was 20 years ago," he said. "It's not just about downtown anymore. We've got cross-county boundaries now."
Indy Connect is a plan that has been scrutinized not just by the region's transportation planners but by elected officials and private sector leaders like the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership.
"Really, what it boils down to is having more of everything," Bingaman said of the initiative.
That includes more vehicles, more service, frequency of routes, more stops, more hours of operation. Currently IndyGo runs 130 buses a day. That's nine million trips annually. That may seem like a lot, but Bingaman says it isn't.
"Someone living at 34th and High School, who works at FedEx, would need 90 minutes to get to work," he said of someone using IndyGo. "With this plan, we're trying to bring more convenience to the ride."
CIRTA's already introduced more bus routes that offer point A to point B pickup and drop-off. There also are bus rapid transit lines now that can control traffic signals to avoid delays and offer more runs and stops at key destination points. It's like rail service at more than half the cost, though CIRTA still hopes for rail transit one day, including to neighboring counties.
"We've seen in other communities how transit provides more options," Bingaman said.
It saves on gas and wear and tear to one's personal vehicle. Fewer drivers also means less traffic - and better air quality - along with safer roads. Bingaman says the idea isn't to take away anyone's car or commuting freedom, but to offer other modes of transport. Changing technology and trends are leading in the direction of mass transit anyway.
"I'd much rather have (commuters) addicted to their iPhones and riding a bus than addicted to their iPhone and driving a car," Bingaman said.
There's also an economic advantage to this kind of infrastructure. Other communities that have made the investment have seen businesses and neighborhoods grow around transit stops. Bingaman says any city considered world class offers this amenity.
"Central Indiana is in competition for jobs and talent," he said. "We have to maintain a competitive edge going forward. Many of our peers are making this investment and taking the lead in attracting the kinds of workers we want to retain. They're starting to reap the economic rewards."
If central Indiana is lagging behind, it's mainly because of funding. Many communities are struggling to even keep up with road maintenance, putting mass transit investment low on the priority list. Indiana's gas tax hasn't been raised in some 20 years or adjusted for inflation. Better fuel economy isn't keeping that coffer full either.
For the start of the next General Assembly, CIRTA's asking state legislators to consider a law that would allow individual counties to hold a referendum asking its residents whether they're willing to pay three-tenths of 1 percent of their income to fund more mass transit. If approved some counties may vote yes, others no, but one county shouldn't have the ability to hold up anyone else. Another aspect to the plan is that any tax dollars from a county earmarked for mass transit stays in that county.
Bingaman is confident the proposal will get due consideration by lawmakers. He cites a growing number of advocates supporting the plan. More than 120 organizations - private, public, and non-profit - have gone on record to back it. Another 7,500-plus citizens have signed a petition in favor.
It's been on the table a while, but Bingaman says it didn't get an honest evaluation in the last General Assembly because it got entwined with the labor dispute that virtually overshadowed everything else in the session.
"I don't know any public works projects that have had to survive the scrutiny transit has in central Indiana," Bingaman said. "We just keep coming back. By the time we get done, I think we will have been fully validated."
Ultimately he thinks they'll also be able to overcome the notion that transit doesn't pay for itself.
"I don't know any infrastructure that necessarily does," Bingaman said. Toll roads maybe, but they still require subsidizing. Same with interstates, which were built with funds from the Department of Defense. The Central Indiana Corporate Partnership conducted a benefit-cost analysis on the Indy Connect plan. It resulted in a return rate of 11.7 percent.
"When you do have something with significant upfront costs, like transit, that can overshadow its long-term benefits," Bingaman said. "We need to make sure we continue educating."
It's important, he adds, to remember that not everybody lives like you do. Mass transit is but one option to provide more dignity to residents here.
"It's not about building trains or buying buses," Bingaman said. "It's about helping people live a way they want to and have a little bit more to do the things they want to. This is one of those things that could contribute greatly to that."
For more information, visit the website at IndyConnect.org.