INDIANAPOLIS — It has been one year since the Red Line buses first went into service on the streets of Indianapolis. The 2019 debut was met with buses packed with curious Hoosiers wanting to be part of the new rapid transit line’s maiden voyage. The year ahead had both overcrowded buses and eventually near-empty buses due to COVID-19.
“What a year! From completing the first Red Line Project, which is the first BRT projects for IndyGo. Completing the project under budget and ahead of schedule, being one of the largest BRT Electric systems in the country, that’s a lot to celebrate,” said Inez Evans, President and CEO of IndyGo.
Like any project some things work out better than planned, while others fall short of expectations. Evans rode the Red Line with WRTV’s Cameron Ridle, where she shared what she felt was the number one let down of the Red Line.
“The buses! The buses have not lived up to our expectations, our contractual expectations of running 275 miles,’ Evans said.
The 60-foot all electric buses are built in California by bus manufacturer “BYD.” They’re supposed to run the entire length of Route 90 for 8 to 10 hours a day on a single charge. Evans says during extreme weather like freezing temperatures in the winter or 90 degrees in the dog days of summer, some buses are only running 120 to 130 miles on a charge. Evans say in some cases that only amounts to three hours of service.
“The 275 that they had reached, or close to 275 in other places had been in areas like California, Arizona. Those climate conditions are totally different than Indianapolis,” Evans said.
The federal grant which in large part pays for the Red Line requires all-electric vehicles, or Indygo could lose out on millions of dollars from the federal government. Right now Indygo is exploring buying buses from other manufactures while still holding BYD to its promises. The bus troubles may lead some to ask why pay for buses that can’t get the job done?
“We haven’t paid for the buses. And until they meet the contractual obligations or come up with a solution that we will accept, were not paying for them. So that’s 30 something million dollars that stays in our bank account,” Evans said.
To make up for the shortfall, BYD is picking up the tab for in-route charging stations along the Red and Purple Lines. It’s part of several lessons learned from year one. Of course, Indianapolis has grown and changed in it’s 200 years, but the Red Line kicked off the city’s first mass transit overhaul in decades.
“If you look at our routes the way they were 40 years ago, IndyGo hasn’t changed. But the city has been constantly evolving and that’s why that redesign is so important to be able to remap the services to where the people are,” Evans said.
Adding a new transit system to an established city turns what seem like simple changes into headaches. Evans says in the first months of Red Line service it became clear that rubber medians meant to keep cars from crossing the Red Line’s path would not work.
“Oh, my goodness. The rubber medians. I started referring to them as the alligators in the road because they kept going on top of one another. So, we replaced those with the concrete medians and those have been greeted so much better by the community,” Evans said.
In other places traffic bollards meant to separate buses from the general road traffic caused a bit of a headache too, as Red Line buses would literally get snagged on the traffic bollards, which were eventually removed. New infrastructure combined with new technology threw IndyGo a curve ball.
“We took on new bus technology, the machines where you get your fares that was new. Signal pre-emption, that was new for us. All of these things laid on top. Nothing worked exactly as it was supposed to on day one, and some things we are still working though.”
Evans has led transit agencies in a number of big American cities. She says IndyGo has presented the most challenges, and none were bigger than opening a bus line months before a global pandemic. After its first month of service, almost one year ago, ridership was at 246,369 passengers. That number declined in the winter, to 138,480 passengers in January.
Before IndyGo could figure out if that drop was because of cold weather coronavirus struck.
Red Line ridership dropped to 93,763 in March and 51,480 in May. But Evans is encouraged by a 21% increase in Red Line riders between June and July 2020.
“Ridership is coming back. It’s not where it was on opening day, but we are seeing our system coming back. Even with the COVID pandemic happening I will say that our transit numbers are ahead of the curve in the return of our ridership than other transit systems nationwide,” Evans said.
After surviving growing pains IndyGo is now looking ahead to the Purple and Blue Lines after a year of feedback, and lessons learned from the Red Line.
“Pre COVID, we had companies just calling us and saying we love the Red Line, it’s a great service. If you look at the landscape of what’s already happening alone purple and along blue line, improvements to the community are already starting to show. That is a component of BRT being promised to come down those streets,” Evans said.
The continued growth of Bus Rapid Transit is creating more job opportunities in Central Indiana. Indygo is always looking for bus operators, but the expansion of the Purple and Blue Lines means more electric buses which increases the need for additional maintenance and engineering staff. Indygo is hiring for those jobs right now.