Why Trains Are Important (Even for Car Guys)

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TRANSIT-CHALLENGED: Downtown Indianapolis has redevelopment, but you'd better own a car. (Photo: HappytimeHarry1/Flickr).

I am writing this on a train. In fact, it’s a train I take for granted, the Metro-North milk run into New York’s Grand Central Terminal. I’m fortunate because if I’d missed this train, another one would have arrived 15 minutes later. That’s the level of mass transit service usually seen only in Europe.

I was reminded of the importance of trains last week when I went to Indianapolis to be the keynote speaker for the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC). It’s safe to say that, despite the best efforts of HEC and other activists, Indianapolis — indeed, the whole state of Indiana — is transit-challenged. The DOT was known as the “Department of Highways” until 1989, and to this day spends only 3 percent of its budget on public transportation. Even the IndyGo bus service (below), which charged me only $3.50 for a ride downtown from the airport, is on life support thanks to budget cuts.

The state is highway-happy, with the sixth-highest density of roads in the U.S. Indianapolis is the 12th largest city in the U.S., but it ranks 100th in transit usage. Per capita spending on transit in the state's metro areas lags similar cities by 30 percent, and the state has been cool to Midwestern high-speed rail plans.

According to HEC's Tim Maloney, "Our public transit system has been left behind. Even as demand for transit services grows — as demonstrated by continuing ridership increases — and rising gas costs put additional strains on the state's 67 transit agencies, major moves have not contributed a cent to support transit." He says that for every $1 invested in transit, $4 comes back in economic value.

While I was in Indiana, I picked up a USA Today with two complementary headlines that reinforce my point. “Gas Prices Pushing More to Drive Less,” said the first one, pointing out that Americans with gas pains have been driving fewer miles every month since March — the first six months of consecutive declines since the $4.11 a gallon year of 2008. A few pages in, I came to “Public Mass Transit Regains Footing,” pointing out that ridership on buses and trains was up 2 percent from 2010 in the first nine months of the year (from 7.63 billion rides to 7.76 billion). People have reached a “threshold of pain” in their daily commutes, said Michael Melaniphy of the American Public Transportation Association.

Indiana needs to understand which way the wind is blowing. Gov. Mitch Daniels (briefly presidential timber) brought in a $3.8 billion windfall by giving a Spanish-based consortium a 75-year lease on a state toll road. So does he use the dough to put a down payment on the progressive transit plan for Indianapolis that includes downtown light rail (but faces a 20-year horizon because of funding issues)? Nah, he pours tons of that money into I-69, an unnecessary highway that will shave 10 to 14 minutes off the all-important Indy-Evansville run. "An environmental, social, and economic disaster!" says Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR).

Sure, I’m a car guy, but I recognize the need to offset highway travel with trains. Daniels went to hard-hit Elkhart, which was the “RV Capital of America” until that business went bust in the face of $4 a gallon gas. He said he wanted to change just one letter and make the city the “EV Capital.” That process started when Think, a Norwegian battery carmaker, opened a factory there. Think has major issues, but I think there’s a point in all this: To realize the development dream, Indiana needs state-of-the-art transit. Why? Because it’s necessary for the “quality of life” that attracts business to metro areas.

Look, it’s easy to hand out tax breaks, and state and county governments do it routinely to lure investment. If I’m willing to plop down a factory somewhere, I won’t pay taxes on it until 2075, and maybe not even then. So that alone isn’t a deal-making selling point. Company executives have to think about settling down in the community, sending their kids to school there, and commuting to work, too. Will they want to take taxis from the airport because there’s no transit hub?

In my Indianapolis speech, I used Chattanooga, Tenn., as an example. Chattanooga decided early on, maybe 20 years ago, that it was going to be a green model for the South, and a pillar of sustainability. Today, it has an Office of Sustainability to make sure the issues stay front and center. That means not only pedestrian bridges and walkable downtown but a free electric bus shuttle. It means design charettes so all the stakeholders get involved. So when Volkswagen chose a home for its first American factory in decades, it shuffled a stack of identical tax breaks and threw in quality of life as a wild card. And, guess what? Sustainable Chattanooga won the $1 billion lottery and landed the plant.

Auto plants are the big fish, bringing with them hundreds of suppliers and support staff. And they’re not big polluters anymore: VW’s plant in Tennessee is a zero-waste facility, recycling even its waste paint. It fits into a city with a green theme.

Back in Indianapolis, I spent an hour in a cozy downtown wine bar with Renee Sweaney, an all-around activist, and entrepreneur who is doing her darndest to paint Indianapolis green. The organic apples on the conference tables were from the inner-city-based food co-op she works for. Renee told me she had long wanted to relocate to Portland, Ore., a mecca for not only sustainability in general but transit in particular. But she decided that Portland already has boatloads of people like her. Indianapolis needs Renee Sweaney. Indeed, it needs to clone her.

On a freezing day, I walked past Indiana’s statehouse and wondered what the lawmakers were thinking. As I learned at the conference, the state is a leader when it comes to factory farms that pollute the air and water. It’s also wasting money on a quixotic bid to gasify coal at a time when natural gas prices are at an all-time low. But Indiana hasn’t done enough to make itself attractive to cleantech or other sectors that represent the future. An EV factory isn’t going to locate next to a manure lagoon.

All this is a shame because Indianapolis has actually done a lot of things right. It's avoided the downtown devastation of a Detroit, and actually has some interesting urban infill going on. I dined with HEC's highly effective executive director, Jesse Kharbanda, at his downtown condo — which used to be the high-powered Indianapolis Athletic Club. And the city limits still contain a lot of healthy housing.

Are you listening, Gov. Daniels? You and I met briefly a few years ago in the Indianapolis area when the Ener1 EV battery company announced a new factory. You seemed energized about making this onetime auto leader (400 automotive nameplates came out of Indiana!) a player once again. It could definitely happen, but not if the state continues to put highways and waste pits ahead of sustainable cities.