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Leaders analyze Denver's commuter transit

November 3, 2008
For the metro area to get commuter trains off the drawing board and onto rails, local governments in the region must cooperate and show their constituents when they'll get to ride.

Those were among key impressions left with 60 Indianapolis-area business and civic leaders who visited Denver Oct. 19-21 as part of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce 2008 Leadership Exchange.

The Denver Regional Transportation District serves eight counties with 83 lightrail vehicles running on 35 miles of track, integrated with a system of 1,070 buses.

The Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority has proposed a diesel rail line from downtown to Noblesville, via the former Nickel Plate line, in the first leg of an eventual region-wide transit system.

With competition for federal dollars fierce, CIRTA will need local funding for the proposed $160 million starter system beyond money from Hamilton and Marion County taxpayers.

Denver's system involves 31 municipalities.

"The thing that impressed me about Denver was just this absolute superior cooperation" among local governments, said J. Albert Smith, president of Chase Bank Central Indiana and chairman of the chamber's board.

"That's what this has to be. It has to be regional. It can't be [just] Marion County or whatever," Smith added.

The Indianapolis region already has underlying cooperation on transportation issues via CIRTA, the agency that would implement the rail system here.

"I would like to expand the CIRTA board to include more cities," said CIRTA board Chairwoman Christine Altman, who also is a Hamilton County commissioner.

So far, neither CIRTA nor other regional transportation leaders have been put to the difficult test of securing a commitment of local funding from their respective communities.

Smith noted that the region already has a template of sorts for doing so in the form of a regional tax on prepared food that's being used to help fund Lucas Oil Stadium.

Getting cities and counties in the metro region to commit to rail funding will be a big challenge, particularly because the first leg of a rail system would serve the more-affluent northeastern suburbs.

In making its case for a rail system well over 20 years ago, Denver came up with a big-picture plan that detailed roughly when each region surrounding Denver would get its own line, Smith said.

"You've got to come up with an overall master plan," he said.

Transit planners haven't yet nailed down preferred rail routes in other fast-growing counties, such as Johnson and Hendricks.

"Everybody wants to know when their chicken arrives in the pot," Altman said.

Though city planners over the years have come up with numerous scenarios for rail corridors radiating from Indianapolis, "it has been a weakness of our planning that hasn't put a big picture on the table" for the public, said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of CIRTA since 2007.

CIRTA officials are pushing the Indiana General Assembly to approve funding options as soon as possible. Look for a bill in the upcoming session that would allow a regional transit authority to designate a corridor for mass transit and capture a portion of sales tax from within that district to improve transportation infrastructure. A similar bill died in the final hours of the last session but found remarkable traction in a state that's been relatively cool to mass-transit funding.

Earlier this month, the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Metropolitan Board of Realtors released a study indicating that 87 percent of central Indiana residents agreed the region needed more transportation options. More than 70 percent supported dedicated public funding. The strongest support came from residents in Boone, Hamilton and Hendricks counties.

The study results run counter to the perception that there's little public support for mass transit. It turns out Denver had the same challenge at first, said Roland Dorson, president of the Greater Indianapolis chamber.

But today, Denver is trying to put in place another 122 miles of rail using federal funds and revenue from a long-standing half-cent sales tax. Unfortunately, its latest project has been marred by cost overruns, with the expansion now estimated to cost $6.1 billion versus $4.7 billion when it was proposed in 2004. Rising costs for construction materials have been partly to blame.

A report released last year by the Federal Transit Administration found that, adjusted for inflation, the capital cost of transit projects in the United States averages about 20 percent greater than the initial estimates.

"They're currently over budget. We learned we're going to have to budget very, very well," Bingaman said.

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