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Indianapolis looks to mass transit project to spur development in low-income area

“I see that this project as symbolic of us bringing our opportunities back and bringing safety along the corridor and restoring homes and appraised values,” one supporter said.

City officials in Indianapolis hope a new bus line targeting the needs of low-income residents will be the catalyst that transforms an underinvested corridor through economic development.

The Indianapolis Public Transit Corporation’s $188 million Purple Line, a 15-mile bus rapid transit, or BRT, system will eventually run from downtown to the neighboring city of Lawrence, providing access to jobs and healthcare for those who mainly depend on mass transit.

City officials, however, have their fingers crossed that the project, scheduled to start construction this month, also will encourage developers to build retail space, offices and affordable housing along an eight-mile stretch of the East 38th Street bus route on the way downtown with the goal of transforming the area.

Bus rapid transit is a system designed to offer faster service by giving energy-efficient buses priority over cars by giving them their own lanes and signal priority, with the goal of reducing their time in traffic and the number of vehicles on the road.

The Federal Transit Administration, which has provided $3.4 billion toward 67 BRT construction projects nationwide since 1978, said these systems are gaining momentum with 12 projects under construction. Projects are underway in San Francisco, Houston and El Paso, Texas and Portland, Oregon. One is under consideration in Atlanta.

“Bus rapid transit is becoming an increasingly popular choice for transit agencies, allowing communities to create equitable access to jobs and opportunities,” the FTA said in a statement.

Proponents say the transit system can also drive community revitalization and economic development.

In Indianapolis, many low-income residents on East 38th Street, especially those between College Avenue and Post Road in the northeast section of town, support the upcoming project, which would bring new infrastructure improvements such as new drainage and curbs. But then there are those who argue the project will do more harm than good.

Historically, the racial dividing line between north and south Indianapolis, East 38th Street is prone to declining housing developments and empty lots. 

Before the pandemic, 36-year-old Simone Manson often walked along an unlit, sidewalk-less road on East 38th Street to catch the first of two buses to her nearest Walmart for groceries.

“You’re standing out there late at night or early in the morning and you’re just in the dark. It feels dangerous, especially for a woman,” she said.

Without a car, she’s since cut down on her trips to the store. However, the addition of the Purple Line would shrink her 45-minute trip to the store down to 22 minutes by allowing her to shop for beef and vegetables at a Kroger downtown.

Former East 38th Street resident Charles Tony Knight, who has largely relied on public transit for the last 40 years, is concerned there will be drawbacks of the new line.

“I’m more concerned with senior citizens and small children having to walk three or four additional blocks to get to the Purple Line,” he said, adding some current bus stops would be removed for the new line. 

He added, constructing the new line would prevent motorists from making left turns and accessing many nearby Black businesses.

The Purple Line is the second of what will be three bus rapid transit lines and would serve roughly 58,000 residents, about 60 percent of whom are minority, said the transit corporation, more commonly known at IndyGo.

About 30 percent of those residents are also considered low-income with a median household earning of $35,000 annually, IndyGo said.

City officials are moving ahead with construction with an eye toward drawing economic growth and development to the community.

Residents of Indianapolis could look to northern Ohio for an example of how bus rapid transit could drive development and economically stimulate a community after the project is completed in 2024.

In Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s HealthLine bus rapid transit system, which opened in 2008 runs on Euclid Avenue through downtown, connects to world-class medical centers such as the Cleveland Clinic, federal transportation officials said.

The HealthLine was a catalyst for redevelopment and rehabilitation of old buildings into housing, retail centers, business startups and investment downtown and in the desolate Black suburb of East Cleveland, healthline officials have said.

The $200 million transit system has generated more than $9.5 billion dollars in economic development by connecting the region’s two largest employment centers — downtown and University Circle. The route has become a destination for tech jobs and medical technology, art, architecture and learning centers, city and federal transportation officials said. It has also been credited for new job growth, more than half of which are high-paying jobs, federal officials said.

Similarly, in Connecticut, bus rapid transit CTfastrak was introduced seven years ago and has been followed by more than $255 million in residential and commercial development, including housing, grocery stores and medical centers, Connecticut transportation officials said.

“We use that guideline as a spine for service,” said Lisa Rivers, transit manager for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said some cities believe people living in low-income areas rely on public transit more and therefore need better service for access to jobs and essential needs. 

“We need to find ways to help them out,” he said.

Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, noted that there has been growth of such projects in disadvantaged communities and communities of color.

“If done right, they do have the chance to be transformative,” Puentes said. “The Indianapolis project is one that a lot of people are paying attention to. It’s not a dense place and very sprawling, so a lot of folks are wondering if they can make it work there. It’s a very bold and ambitious project.”

Indianapolis officials want the new bus line to be the lynchpin that attracts development and spurs new housing and offices.

“We want to encourage the development of affordable housing near the Purple Line,” said Scarlett Andrews, director of the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development in Indianapolis.

She added, the city has modified its zoning code specifically for transit oriented development along the bus route in preparation of economic growth and connectivity along East 38th Street, a section of which has underutilized strip malls, declining housing developments and has turned into a center for public safety issues.

However, bus rapid transit doesn’t come without its headaches.

In Northern Ohio, Robert Winn, a board member of Clevelanders for Public Transit, said while improved streetscaping and sidewalks somewhat contributed to economic development, the bus service is far from perfect.

“Still, it’s not reaching its full potential,” Winn said, adding travel times haven’t gotten much better and obstructions of traffic, delivery vehicles and pedestrians persist and plague the transit system.

In Pittsburgh, one of the first metropolitan cities to introduce rapid bus transit about 35 years ago, transportation officials said some are worried about how their initial success has led to gentrification. Many of the people who once lived there and benefitted from bus rapid transit were priced out and forced to move, transportation officials said.

Their bus rapid transit system was built along the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, which went through the heart of East Liberty, at the time one of the city’s largest Black communities, transportation officials said.

“The development that occurred really has only happened in the last decade,” said Adam Brandolph, spokesman for Port Authority of Allegheny based in Pittsburgh. “It really has changed the entire fabric for the community for good or bad.”

Freemark said gentrification is a potential side effect of any development in an underrepresented community.

“Gentrification is a possibility, it’s not to be dismissed and it’s something cities need to take seriously, in the planning of their future,” Freemark said.  

Added Puentes: “You have to be intentional …because these investments are gonna make prices go up and people may not be able to stick around. It’s tough.”

Ashley Gurvitz, a proponent of the Purple Line and CEO of United Northeast Community Development Corporation in Indianapolis, sees a bright future for East 38th Street.

“I see that this project as symbolic of us bringing our opportunities back and bringing safety along the corridor and restoring homes and appraised values,” she said.

Michael McKillip, executive director of Midtown Indy, said sections of East 38th Street have difficulty accessing hospitals and other important needs, but the Purple Line would solve those problems. “The bus line will give people a way to connect to the rest of the city,” he said.

Gurvitz said a medical device manufacturing plant opening along the route next month is planning to hire 100 workers who live along or near East 38th Street. A grocery store is also in the works, she said.

City officials also plan to use $3 million in federal money to increase affordable housing along the line.

“In terms of impact, the ability to connect people to jobs is heavily on our minds as well as affordable housing opportunities near to the Purple Line is something we’re hoping to stimulate as a city,” Andrews said.