By Lesley Weidenbener
Central Indiana residents will have a chance to vote on whether to pay higher taxes to expand the region's bus system and add high-speed rail lines under legislation that passed the House on Monday.
House Bill 1011 - approved 56-39 - now moves to the Senate.
Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said the legislation is "very important for the future vitality of the state of Indiana and Central Indiana" and he called it a "jobs bill." He said it will move people to jobs and give employers more incentive to locate in Indiana.
The bill lets officials in Marion County and its neighbors decide whether to pose a referendum to create a mass transit district and levy the taxes to pay for it.
If approved, those Central Indiana counties could raise income taxes by up to 0.3 percent to raise $1.3 billion for more buses, more routes that go more places, and eventually the construction of a light rail system between downtown Indianapolis and Hamilton County.
For a family with taxable income of $75,000, the potential tax hike would be roughly $225 per year.
Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, called the bill "a substantial step for cooperation between the city and suburbs, something that reflects the economic reality."
"It says the people who live and work together ... can get around without regard to some 19thcentury line created before any of us were born," he said.
The bill originally would have applied to Marion County and all its neighbors. But as amended by the House, the most rural townships in those surrounding counties would be exempted from the vote and the tax increases.
And Torr told lawmakers that it won't impact anyone outside Central Indiana. He said the bill includes language that protects the state and other Hoosier taxpayers against picking up the tab should the mass transit district struggle to pay its bills. But Rep. Mike Speedy, R-Indianapolis, said that he doesn't trust Marion County officials to manage the system in a way that won't require a state bailout or mean much higher taxes for people in Central Indiana.
And Speedy said he's concerned that a bigger mass transit system won't be sustainable.
He said the city's existing population density and geographic features mean that a transit system will never be "anything more than a social service, a social program."
"The best possible social program is a job," Speedy said. Rep. David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis, said the timing of the legislation is tough, especially given an economy that has kept unemployment rates higher.
"You start looking at all these costs. They add up," he said. "It's tough. Maybe we should wait a little bit later." But Torr said the tax increase is a referendum, not a mandate. "The taxpayers get to vote to impose this tax on themselves," Torr said.
And Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said the areas surrounding Indianapolis are growing and will need new ways to move people from place to place. He said lower-income people - young and old - need mass transit to improve their lives.
Most of all, he said, employers believe mass transit will solve their struggles to get the workforce they need.
And even some from outside the region said they support the legislation. Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the bill is not just about helping lower income residents but it's also about young urban professionals.
"They don't want a car," he said. "They want a cool city."
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty