Conversation about embracing state-of-the-art mass transit for central Indiana is nothing new. Arguments for and against significantly upgrading IndyGo, the Indianapolis bus system, and developing an integrated light-rail system to connect adjacent counties have been going on for a couple decades now. The stumbling blocks have always been a combination of finding the money to pay for it; an “it’s not our problem” attitude by xenophobic elected officials; and the lack of political will to make something happen. Meanwhile, peer cities like Austin, Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Charlotte have moved forward with transit systems of varying kinds to transport commuters in their increasingly-congested metropolitan areas. Now, proponents believe it’s time central Indiana punched its transit ticket.
After years of false starts and missed opportunities, a tipping point may have finally been reached. “We now have regional buy-in,” explained Ron Gifford, Executive Director, Central Indiana Transit Task Force, during a recent community conversation about the Central Indiana Transit Plan held in Fishers. “Local elected officials have stepped up because they understand the value of a really good transit system to economic development.” Gifford noted that Mayors Jim Brainard (Carmel), Andy Cook (Westfield), John Ditslear (Noblesville), and Fishers Town Council President John Weingardt all support the measure. “I’m optimistic because we’ve seen a great groundswell of public support. As we’ve pushed the issue throughout the legislature this session, there’s been an outpouring of organic support and the public contacting their legislators and letting them know this is a critical issue and asking for the opportunity for having a vote,” Gifford said.
The proposal calls for phased implementation of the $1.3 billion plan endorsed in 2011 by a cadre of elected officials and civic and business leaders. A combination of upgraded bus services and next-generation rapid transit vehicles would use dedicated transit corridors to move large numbers of commuters quickly and efficiently with both limited express and frequent-stop routes. Proponents offer four primary arguments in favor of the plan. “It gives access to jobs, education, healthcare, and entertainment to those who cannot afford, or are unable to drive, cars,” explained Gifford. “Mass transit also helps attract a young, professional workforce that prefers living in communities with high-quality transit service. It promotes neighborhood and commercial development and would ease traffic congestion and improve air quality by getting car commuters off the roads,” he added.
Phase One is a 10-year plan targeting Marion and Hamilton counties. Gifford said these are the two counties “most willing to do this,” and noted that Hamilton County’s population will likely double in the next 20-30 years. “We can’t build our way out of this with more roads,” he emphasized. Initially, the current bus system would be expanded, eventually tripling the level of services. Five rapid-transit lines have been identified, including what planners call the Green Line (also known as the Nickel Plate Line) – an existing rail bed that snakes its way from Noblesville past the Fishers train station and into downtown Indianapolis. Gifford credited forward-thinking Fishers leaders (The Hoosier Heritage Port Authority) who, some 20 years ago, bought the rail bed and designated it for future transit use. Gifford emphasized that proposed rail service would be nothing like the State Fair Train rumbling in and out of Fishers each August. Instead, planners are eyeing electric-powered transit vehicles to provide a quieter, more environmentally-friendly experience for commuters and the businesses and residences located along transit corridors.
Gifford said mass transit in other cities has had direct economic impact: where commuter stations are located, business has followed. A proposed funding mechanism would be adoption of what planners call EDIT – Economic Development Income Tax. A three-tenths-of-one-percent increase in income taxes would pay for and maintain the proposed system. That calculates to about ten to fifteen dollars a month for a family of four earning $50,000 annually. “One of the bigger challenges we have is talking to people about why this is an investment that makes sense. Why should we increase our local tax to pay for this?” said Gifford. “In the current political environment, that’s a tough conversation for some people. In our view, it’s really important that this go to local referendum – that the public be allowed to weigh in on this. Ultimately, we think a fully-informed public will value the investment and vote in favor of it.”
A necessary step in making this happen is changes to Indiana law that would provide funding flexibility at local levels of government and a referendum allowing public voting on the proposal. At the time of this writing, a bill addressing these changes is winding its way through the Indiana General Assembly. Renee Cox, District 3 representative on the Fishers Town Council, is closely watching the legislative developments. “We have seen, for the first time, a (mass transit) bill come out of committee, and that’s encouraging,” she said. “If we’re going to continue to sell business development for Hamilton County, a good transit system is vital to its success. We’re talking about planning for the future.”
Cox thinks the jury is still out on the proposed tax increase. People she has talked with express concern if it would be enough funding for sustainability, fearing future, additional tax hikes. Still, when asked about mass transit, she’s fond of quoting Indiana State Senator Jerry Torr: “We gave the people the Right to Work; now we need to give them a way to get to work.” Her hope is that people will put aside preconceived notions about mass transit – including rumors and misinformation – and come to the conversation with open eyes. “The real beneficiaries are those still to come – people who choose to live, work, and play in Fishers and other central Indiana communities,” emphasized Cox.
Planners have designated 2013 as a year for discussion about the Central Indiana Transit Plan. Detailed information is available at www.indyconnect.org. Future community conversations are planned across the metro area.