- Mark A. Lee
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On Nov. 8 Marion County voters will find a question on the ballot regarding the funding of mass transit in the city.
The question verbatim reads as follows:
Shall Marion County have the ability to impose a county economic development income tax rate, not to exceed a rate of 0.25%, to pay for improving or establishing public transportation service in the county through a public transportation project that will create a connected network of buses and rapid transit lines; increase service frequency; extend operational hours; and implement three new rapid transit lines?
What does that mean exactly?
The basic ask of the question is whether or not the City-County Council should create a small income tax specifically designed to fund a public transportation plan for the county. The proposed tax rate translates to 25 cents deducted and allocated from every $100 earned to pay for the public transportation initiative, specifically an overhaul of the current IndyGo bus system.
Currently IndyGo, which runs the public bus service in the city, operates on a $70 million budget. The budget is funded through federal assistance from a few agencies, a portion of state sales taxes, a portion of Marion County property taxes and passenger fares.
The proposed mass transit plan could be accomplished without the tax increase, but it would take several years to save the money needed to finance the plan. The proposed tax would raise the money instantly to provide for the expanded bus service and ensure a dedicated revenue stream to sustain any future transit needs.
One major component of the Mass Transit Plan seeks to invest in the current IndyGo system by increasing the frequency of service along certain bus routes in the city. Currently Indy services most stops every 30 minutes or one an hour. Some stops even take longer than an hour, leaving passengers waiting for up to 90 minutes. The transit plan seeks to increase some services to 15 minutes between buses and have more 30-minute lines. The proposed rapid transit lines — the Red, Blue and Purple lines — would operate with a frequency of every 10 minutes, putting as much rapid in "rapid transit" as possible.
Letter to the Editor: Vote yes on Question 2, from IndyHub
The plan also calls for all bus lines to operate for longer dedicated hours. Currently, lines vary between when they begin for the day and when they shut down for the night. The plan calls for streamlining schedules so that all buses on all lines are running on the same start and finish Monday through Friday and on the weekends.
The question on the ballot asks Marion County residents if they would approve of an additional income tax that would create a dedicated revenue stream to fund public transportation in the city. Transportation officials have already studied the immediate and long-term needs of the city and developed a plan. Therefore, the question includes some of the generalizations about the plan to address public transportation — a bus network that includes an increase in service frequency and extended operations hours as well as three new rapid transit lines.
Those who are for the proposal vary in backgrounds and reasons why they support the measure. The lack and infrequency of public transportation in Indianapolis affects many different groups of people and issues. Transportation is an issue linked to economic growth, housing, employment and health and safety.
Economic development officials agree with studies that show how access to employment factors into a company's decision to locate in an area. Social justice advocates point to employment access on behalf of the employee. Unreliable transportation to a job can prevent an unemployed individual from taking a job they know they won't be able to get to. Millennials are wanting more opportunities to live close to where employment as well as lifestyle amenities are close by, especially those concerned with reducing their own personal carbon footprint on the world. The U.S. Center for Disease Control found that people who utilize public transportation get more exercise simply by walking to and from stops and destinations. And fewer cars on the roads mean fewer vehicle accidents resulting in personal injury or damage, according to the National Safety Council.
"From a business perspective increased transit service or frequent reliable transit service would mean people are able to better access the job sites, better able to access educational opportunities to get credentials — to get certification degrees to earn higher incomes," says Mark Fisher, Indy Chamber's Vice President of Government Relations and Policy Development. "It means people have better access to healthy, vibrant lifestyles, access to health food, which in the long run impacts healthcare costs and employer-paid healthcare costs."
There are those who are opposed to the Mass Transit Plan. Arguments against the plan cite the lack of ridership within the existing bus service, the perceived "antiquated" nature of bus services as opposed to more modern transportation initiatives like Uber and the inevitable tax increase.
Lee Lange is a leader in the opposition movement trying to encourage people to vote against the measure. She argues that the transit plan relies on a "a quaint 1940s solution to a 21st Century opportunity."
"When Uber and Lyft — the transportation innovation leaders of today — are initiating revolutions in transit technology and business models in other communities, Indianapolis once again looks in the rear-view mirror," Lange writes in a press release. "Instead Indianapolis leaders, IndyGo planners and taxpayers should be anticipating the flood of change that will occur over the next few years — not building permanent bus lanes down the middle of major city thoroughfares, which will be rendered obsolete."
Lange argues that the expanded bus proposal is an inflexible model that will be too costly for taxpayers to maintain. She also argues that the proposed Red Line — the rapid transit line traveling north-south through Marion County — will destroy property, specifically in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood. The Red Line project is proposed to be funded by federal transportation dollars, but Lange says that isn't guaranteed without congressional approval, which hasn't happened yet.
Ultimately the vote on the question is not the final word. Unlike referendums for tax increases for school districts (like the one Washington Township voters will see Election Day), the final vote on Question 2 is not the final say on the issue. The vote is merely a way for the City-County Council to gauge public interest and opinion on the subject. The tax increase cannot become a reality without a council vote.
And it's not like this plan has come out of nowhere quickly. Public transportation has been an issue in Indianapolis for decades. In 2003, the Bart Peterson administration put together a blue ribbon task force to explore ways to address public transportation in the city. In 2009 the conversation become regional, with government and community leaders deciding to tackle best investment strategies, and in 2010 that task force determined the place to start was with IndyGo, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority.
After a decade of task forces and discussions, years of assessments and studies and months of public meetings and outreach, the time has come for Marion County to stand up and decide the future of public transportation in Indianapolis.