If you feel sometimes like Louisville is behind the times when it comes to public transit, that’s because it is. Cities large and small have been boosting their mass transit systems over the past decade—with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support—while here in Louisville, we’re building one of the largest highways to cut through a downtown ever all while cutting our already meager bus service.
We’ve had lackluster track record on transit and multi-modal design. Many of the most serious discussions about light rail and streetcars are relegated to citizen-led groups like An Old Way Forward (now called the River City Streetcar). It’s been over a decade since the last plan for a light rail line was killed, and this year, some of the city’s most popular bus lines suffered service cuts
If we expect to see real change on improving transit in Louisville, we’re going to need a plan—and some leadership. That plan part is in the works, or at least it’s supposed to be, and we’re beginning to see some leadership, too.
Since it was begun in November 2013, the city’s grand vision for its multi-modal transportation future, the so-called Move Louisville strategic plan, appears to have stalled. And with it any chance of jumpstarting initiatives that might fall under its cover.
But sometimes things go right, too. Like today, with an announcement that Louisville received its first federal TIGER grant to remake Dixie Highway into a multi-modal street complete with the city’s first Bus Rapid Transit System on dedicated bus lanes. (More on that below.)
Progress is certainly a mixed bag. Let’s take stock of where we are today on some of the most important transportation issues facing Louisville.
A history of standing still
Move Louisville is being produced by the city’s economic development division, Louisville Forward. The report was supposed to be released in September 2014 according to an April 2015 report by WFPL‘s Jacob Ryan. Ryan reported then that the plan was still in the works, but clearly delayed. At the time, Patti Clare, deputy director of the city’s office of advanced planning, told Ryan that the report would be released in May.
Clare told Ryan that an extensive public input process showed strong support for building light rail, adding bike lanes, and improving sidewalks across the city.
The Move Louisville website appeals for patience, with no updates since early summer. “A draft MOVE Louisville Plan will be released for public review in late June, with the adoption process planned for July and August,” the site reads. “We thank you for your patience.”
Following up in July after a third missed deadline, Ryan reported that the plan’s release was imminent, according to city officials who cited the overwhelming quantity of public response as delaying the release. The “strategic plan may be released this month,” he wrote on July 2. That deadline was missed as well.
Now over a year late, Move Louisville is nowhere to be seen. Ryan again followed up on October 9, clearly skeptical of any release date and frustrated with the city’s response. “When the transportation plan will be released is unknown,” he wrote. “A Louisville Forward spokeswoman did not return repeated requests for comment about the timing of the release.”
What happens after we get the report?
Whenever the draft report is released, it’s intended to be a guide, according to Ryan—and needs more review to become official policy. After a draft is released, the city will collect more public input, and the report will move on to the Louisville Metro Planning Commission for review. Finally, Move Louisville would have to be approved by the full Metro Council.
“Officials will next tackle funding for the individual projects,” he wrote. Clare said the city would likely rely on competitive national grants, which Louisville has had a poor track record of receiving in the past. “Other funding could come from restructuring the city’s budget to focus more on moving people around the city,” Ryan wrote.
And the yet-to-be-seen plan hasn’t been cheap so far, either. According to the Move Louisville website, the report itself cost $750,000:
The city received a $600,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2012 Transportation, Community and System Preservation Grant Program. The city matched the federal grant with $125,000, and partnered with the Transit Authority of River City (TARC), which contributed $25,000, to help fund the total local match for Move Louisville.
And while we wait, Louisville is losing funding to other cities who have a vision of their own already in place. This month, Ryan pointed out that 17 other cities were awarded major federal transit grants, ranging from $250,000 each for streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit lines in Phoenix and Provo, Utah, and $1.2 million to $2 million for a BRT line in Pittsburgh and a light rail extension in Tacoma, Washington.
TARC counting pennies
In August, TARC cut bus service in Louisville. To help reduce costs by $1.2 million, the authority reduced frequency among its three most popular bus routes. The 4, 18, and 23 lines, running along Fourth Street, Dixie and Preston highways, and Broadway respectively, now run on 13-15 minute intervals and weekday bus frequency on Dixie Highway south of Heaton Road was reduced from every 15 to every 30 minutes.
“Federal grant funding for TARC’s three frequent service routes ended more than a year ago and we simply can’t afford to continue the level of frequency we have had, but we will still maintain good frequency,” Barry Barker, TARC’s executive director, said in a statement.
It’s not all doom-and-gloom at TARC, however, as the authority this year launched its Zero Bus system that provides two free loops around Downtown and Old Louisville. That system is subsidized by grants and businesses along its route.
TIGER’s roar silenced in Louisville
But while we spend billions on highways and can’t afford one million for transit, other cities are doing it differently. That $20 million in transit grants Ryan described before isn’t the only money Louisville has left on the table. Over the past decade, cities across the country have raked in millions for transit projects.
The biggest federal program pushing funds to a variety of projects, many of which were transit or urbanism related, is the so-called TIGER program (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery), which began in 2010. TIGER dished out over $4 billion in funds to cities across the country. Here’s a sampling of where that money went.
- Detroit received $25 million to help with a streetcar line.
- Indianapolis got $20.5 million for a bike and pedestrian network.
- Tucson, Arizona, was awarded $63 million for a streetcar.
- Atlanta received nearly $48 million for a streetcar.
- Pittsburgh got $15 million for a transit center.
- Chattanooga, Tennessee, got $400,000 to create a plan to build rail transit.
- Omaha, Nebraska, was awarded almost $15 million for Bus Rapid Transit.
- Kansas City took in $20 million for a streetcar.
- The list goes on and on (view a map of Round 6 TIGER projects here).
Until about an hour ago, Louisville has had no such fortune. An 2014 analysis by Broken Sidewalk of the first six rounds of TIGER funding indicates that all of Kentucky received only four such grants over the six funding cycles. Three of those were for road or bridge work outside Louisville and the fourth was for freight rail updates in Eastern Kentucky.
Officials with the TIGER program could not divulge information on whether Louisville submitted applications that were denied over that time. “DOT does not release information on applicants that were not selected to receive TIGER grants,” Susan Hendrick, deputy press secretary at U.S. Department of Transportation, told Broken Sidewalk in an email.
Last fall, we reached out to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, TARC, and Metro Louisville to learn more about why Louisville had never made the list. We never heard back from KYTC, but TARC and the city both offered insights into the process, which has included a lot of learning
Jon Reiter, communications manager at TARC, wrote us back about an earlier TIGER grant application for Dixie Highway that didn’t go through.
TARC collaborated with Louisville Metro Government on their application this year for a grant that would make improvements in the Dixie Highway corridor, including rapid bus service with enhanced stops, signal pre-emption and other amenities to accommodate transit.
Develop Louisville Senior Planner Steve Sizemore told Broken Sidewalk that the city was learning from the TIGER process:
Regarding TIGER applications from Louisville, yes, we applied for two this year . I believe this was the first attempt from Louisville Metro for TIGER. We had begun the process previously, but never submitted. I don’t recall what those initiatives were.
This year, we applied for both a planning and a capital grant, both unsuccessful. However, we were very pleased with our effort to pull together the support and ideas for this very competitive grant.
The planning grant was for 9th Street from the river to Hill Street, looking to leverage the need to break down the barrier to west Louisville that corridor creates.
The capital grant was to leverage the state-allocated funding of $11.5 million to enhance the safety and accessibility on Dixie Highway, titled “Transforming Dixie Highway.” The scope focused on the 12-mile section from Broadway to just south of the Gene Snyder.
We thought we had competitive applications, but with stiff competition nationally and only one grantee allocated for Kentucky (I believe it was the Mountain Parkway), we were not able to obtain the funds this round.
In my review of recent successful grants, many of them applied previously without success. The key for us will be to gain political support, generate evidence of need, and demonstrate readiness of the project (preliminary engineering completed, advanced phases, etc.). Those are among the many criteria to have a successful application.
Thankfully the city didn’t hang up that Dixie Highway project after an initial rejection. We need the Move Louisville plan and political leaders willing to stand up for transit as readily as highways to make it onto the list of cities already playing in the game.
Sometimes things work out
Representative John Yarmuth, Governor Steve Beshear, and Mayor Greg Fischer announced Monday that the city had received a $16.9 million federal TIGER grant to transform Dixie Highway “into a modern, safer, more pedestrian-friendly corridor,” thanks to a required local match of $11.5 million from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
The target area covers Dixie from Broadway to the Gene Snyder, where 60,000 motorists and 4,800 bus riders on Route 18 alone, pass through daily. That stretch has also been one of the deadliest in the city.
The so-called Transforming Dixie Highway project aims to create a multi-modal street that’s safe and beautiful for all users, whether they’re on foot, bike, bus, or behind the wheel. According to a press release, the plan has three components: “intelligent traffic signalization designed to reduce commuter delays; improved safety through new sidewalks and improved crosswalks; and new buses and enhanced stops to accommodate Bus Rapid Transit, with lanes designated for buses only.”
We’ll dig deeper into this project in the future.
Still playing catch-up
What makes the stalled Move Louisville multi-modal plan even more important is that other groups are speeding ahead with their own plans that emphasize more highway building—and we’re not yet through with the first highway boondoggle tearing at the city’s urban fabric.
On October 13, Business First‘s Marty Finley reported on the so-called “Regional Links: Global Connections” strategic plan put out by Southeast Regional Logistics Council, a group of top logistics industry leaders in Southern Indiana, “tasked by the state to assess infrastructure, public policy and work-force needs,” according to Finley.
Among the recommendations in the report, according to Insider Louisville‘s Caitlin Bowling, are spending $160.5 million to widen Interstate 64, allotting $339 million for expanding U.S. 150, and hundreds of millions in other road projects such as widening Interstate 65 and redesigning the Sherman–Minton Bridge. The report also calls for bolstering regional rail and airports. That report is expected to guide infrastructure spending in Southern Indiana over the next 30 years.
Let’s make Move Louisville count
Eventually, the Move Louisville plan will be released and adopted, and we should make sure it’s the best plan possible—after all, it’s going to guide multi-modal policy for the next 25 years. With its draft release deadline pushed over a year out, we hope that happens sooner rather than later.
While a lot of funding has passed us by, it’s important that we keep pushing forward on future opportunities and learning from our mistakes. Today we saw why that’s so important with the Dixie Highway announcement. And it’s heartening to hear, as Sizemore pointed out, that the city is putting itself out there and isn’t afraid to fail. Eventually opportunity will strike. Like it did today.