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Lawmakers begin transit study

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Planning for the Indy Connect plan to modernize the city's transportation system continues, even as the policy changes necessary to enable the plan's actualization remain enmeshed in the bureaucratic quagmire known as the Indiana General Assembly.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and sits on the Legislature's summer study committee on transit. - THE STATEHOUSE FILE
  • The Statehouse File
  • Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and sits on the Legislature's summer study committee on transit.

At a Monday summer study committee meeting meant to help state legislators vet a plan to upgrade the city's transportation system, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, continued to voice his longstanding skepticism that greater investment in mass transit systems could justify the cost.

"Is anyone looking at subsidizing small vehicles (for carless residents)?" Kenley asked. "Environmental issues are not what they used to be with electric cars and all that."

The senator also indicated that he is not easily sold on arguments — as outlined by several mayors and Ron Gifford of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership — that a more robust public transit system would support revitalization in depressed urban areas.

"Are we better off spending money thinking transit will solve problems, or will lack of good schools and safety on streets and jobs in these areas still be an issue?" Kenley asked Gifford.

"It's a big cost item so it's going to have to show some results," Kenley added, noting his often-repeated position that road infrastructure is entirely supported by its users through gas taxes and various vehicle-related sales taxes and licensing fees.

"Anyone that says transit will solve everything is a selling you a bill of goods," Gifford said. "To say that a good transit system isn't required to build healthier communities ... is also selling a bill of goods, in my opinion."

He drew lawmakers' attention to two sets of statistics, taken from a 2011 Brookings Institute study, that highlight a problematic position for Indianapolis with respect to its ability to compete against other major cities for jobs and talent — as well to its ability to provide basic services to existing residents:

1) Only 61 percent of the jobs in the metro area can be accessed by public transit within a half-mile of the job site. Indianapolis ranks 73rd in the nation based on this accessibility metric.

2) Only 22 percent of the metro population can get to their jobs within 90 minutes. On this score, the city ranks 62nd in U.S.

Gifford also took issue with the contention that roads and highways are supported entirely with users fees, noting that cities and counties frequently must supplement highway budgets for roads and bridges with general-fund tax dollars. In addition, both the state government and the municipal government of Indianapolis have sold or leased major assets — the toll road in northern Indiana and the city's water utility, respectively — to subsidize ever-growing infrastructure costs.

Mayor Ballard steps to the plate, again

Mayor Greg Ballard also testified Monday — repeating the case he has laid out to lawmakers for the past two sessions that improvements to the city's transportation system are necessary for Indy's future vitality.

"It's critical that working people have more time with their families, it's critical that seniors have better mobility, it's critical to attracting new residents and it's critical to the future growth of our city and region," Ballard said.

He highlighted the city's inability to fund significant upgrades given its current fiscal situation, noting that due to revenue reductions associated with property tax caps, the recession and a state accounting error in delivering tax revenue to the city, Indianapolis faces an estimated $55 million budget shortfall in 2014.

The funding to support the necessary improvements cannot be obtained unless the Marion County residents vote to support a dedicated tax — and, Ballard noted, the people don't have the option of placing that question on their ballot without the General Assembly's approval.

"There's only so much more you can squeeze the turnip and expect anything out of it," Ballard said. "I am not asking for bailout. I am asking you to let us decide how to grow. "

Ballard also had a response to Kenley's concern that, should the voters elect to pass a 0.3 percenttax increase to pay for the system, it would present an undue burden on the city's un- and under-employed.

"The lower income people in the city of Indianapolis are dying for this," Ballard said, sharing an anecdote of a woman who must take a day off work to enable the more than four-hour, roundtrip bus route she must navigate to visit her doctor.

"This would be dedicated funding," he added. "You can't think of this as an expense — this is an investment so the city can grow its tax base, so future mayors don't have a structural gap we're facing right now. To grow the tax base, we must offer amenities people want — that includes transit.

"I am asking you to trust the people of Indianapolis to decide for themselves."

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard echoed this sentiment, arguing that a more robust regional transportation system is necessary to stem the snowballing costs associated with trying to support infrastructure to the ever-expanding sprawl into the Indiana countryside and for Central Indiana cities to compete nationally — and internationally — for jobs and residents.

"We don't have those mountains, oceans or that good climate, so we need to work on that built environment," Brainard said. "I seriously urge you to consider allowing people to vote it up or down."

Mayor John Ditslear of Noblesville also offered anecdotes to illustrate his community's need for a more robust regional transit system.

In community listening exercises held with residents and businesses, Ditslear said he was surprised by the "resounding yes – there are transportation problems, they are growing and they have negative consequences."

Concrete, continued

Along with the testimony the study committee solicited relating to mass transit, it also heard from Indiana Department of Transportation Chief of Staff Troy Woodruff, who briefed lawmakers on a statewide mobility study slated for releaseWednesday.

"We have no significant congestion in the state of Indiana," Woodruff said. "The majority of problems are related to construction, weather and snow."

As for the bottlenecks on I-69 on the Northeastside of Indianapolis, Woodruff outlined the opportunities he sees for strategic elimination, such as diverting freight traffic from the metro area along connector highways that link I-69 to I-70 — and I-70 to I-65, and I-65 to State Road 37.

[For transportation watchers keeping score at home, this is the same INDOT official whose family — according to an analysis by The Indianapolis Star — netted an 83 percent gain on a land sale along the I-69 construction corridor.]

"It seems to me we don't think about anything else but concrete and highways," Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, said to Woodruff. "Is that standard or are others more progressive in terms of taking more cars off the roads?"

Woodruff responded: "We are an executive branch and we take our cues from the governor. And we feel we're in line with his vision. As he says, 'Roads bring jobs.' "

Gifford offered a different take on combating congestion.

"Trying to solve congestion by expanding lanes is like trying to lose weight by expanding your belt," he said.


Anna Tyszkiewicz, executive director, Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, and Ehren Bingaman of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority drop by NUVO to discuss the latest in mass transit planning (Tyszkiewicz) and policy (Bingaman) - and encourage the public to provide feedback to preliminary recommendations on three rapid transit lines: The Red Line (from Carmel to Greenwood), The Green Line (from Noblesville to Downtown) and The Blue Line (from the airport across town along Washington).
  • Anna Tyszkiewicz, executive director, Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, and Ehren Bingaman of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority drop by NUVO to discuss the latest in mass transit planning (Tyszkiewicz) and policy (Bingaman) - and encourage the public to provide feedback to preliminary recommendations on three rapid transit lines: The Red Line (from Carmel to Greenwood), The Green Line (from Noblesville to Downtown) and The Blue Line (from the airport across town along Washington).

Meanwhile, out on the streets ...

As the legislators continue their deliberations, planning for an upgrade to the city's transportation system that would double the number of buses, add bus rapid transit and potentially enable commuter rail from Noblesville to Downtown continues.

The Indy Connect planning process, enabled with a $2 million federal grant and a $400,000 local match, has been like a funnel, starting with a wide-ranging vision process in 2010 and gradually tapering to a more specific plan, Ehren Bingaman of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority explained in a recent interview.

CIRTA partners with Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization and IndyGo as members of Indy Connect working together to try to envision and build the best overall transit plan for the metro area.

A series of nine public meetings is underway to share preliminary plans, gather feedback and gauge reaction to three rapid transit lines: The Red Line (from Carmel to Greenwood), The Green Line (from Noblesville to Downtown) and The Blue Line (from the airport across town along Washington). [See info box for details.]

"Hopefully," Bingman said, "the outcome is: We go through that study-committee process, senators have gotten exposure to the facts they need to have (and) they thoroughly are comfortable with the notion of empowering citizens to make a local investment decision on a local transportation plan using local revenue."

IndyGo's current funding

In addition to user fees and federal grants, mass transit is currently supported by a line item in the state budget, which last year distributed $42.5 million to support transit systems statewide — $10.5 million of it to IndyGo, INDOT officials said.

Still, IndyGo is cash-strapped, requiring management to be "very creative" in its bus replacement strategies, IndyGo President Mike Terry told legislators.

For 2012, IndyGo's operating budget was $65 million. Federal funds are generally used for capital expenditures, such as new buses, but are now being used to support operating costs. As a result, IndyGo buses that should retire at 12 years and have an average age of six now average 10 years old with some in the fleet dating back to the late '90s, Terry said. To help stretch its resources, the IndyGo team is buying used buses from Columbus, Ohio —

Even after a $6 million boost to the IndyGo budget which enabled some route expansion, additional hours and higher frequency on some routes, more is needed, Terry said.

"For a Pacers game Downtown, we can get you there, but we can't get you home."

Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, asked Terry if he was concerned that a potential rail line from Noblesville to Downtown would pull resources away from the IndyGo budget.

"This is a full integrated system," Terry said. "I wouldn't look at it as taking one from the other, as I would 'Are you funding a comprehensive system and funding appropriate mechanism for those corridors?'"


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