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Mass-transit movement focuses on education: Passenger projections, search for director delay effort

March 26, 2007

Efforts to secure a mass-transit system for central Indiana are moving ahead. But not rapidly.

Several mass-transit bills are pending in the General Assembly-including one requiring the Indiana Department of Transportation to study building a rail system from Indianapolis to Muncie, and another encouraging development of mass-transit systems across the state.

But neither is likely to result in immediate funding for a system serving Indianapolis commuters.

Local mass-transit advocates still are a long way from winning over lawmakers and others who would help fund a system, which could cost hundreds of millions to more than a billion dollars.

Setbacks have slowed their efforts. Most significantly, the Federal Transit Administration last fall rejected the city's first attempt to project passenger patterns. The data is crucial to establish Hoosiers' mass-transit demand-and to secure federal funding.

Then, early this year, the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority had to restart its search for its first executive director when the organization couldn't afford the salary demands of its preferred candidate.

For now, local mass-transit advocates are satisfying themselves with raising the awareness of their vision. On March 21, they testified before a joint meeting of two House committees at the Statehouse. They shared the stage with proponents of high-speed rail for the entire state, as well as local transit leaders from northwest Indiana and Lafayette.

"You've got to start somewhere," said CIRTA President Christine Altman. "The first place we thought was most logical was to work with more information presented to our legislators."

In a two-part series last summer, IBJ found that, although mass transit eventually might relieve highway congestion here, many central Indiana government officials are not ready to jump on the bandwagon.

Altman remains hopeful. She said central Indiana passengers could begin riding the first segment of a mass-transit system between downtown and the Hamilton County suburbs by 2012 or 2014.

Funding remains a huge question mark, however. At the March 21 hearing, INDOT officials said most of the money it receives from the federal and state sources already is earmarked for other uses.

Advocates, meanwhile, continue to methodically plan for a mass-transit future.

After the FTA rejected traffic projections submitted by the city's Metropolitan Planning Organization, the MPO went back to work, tweaking its analysis to account for express bus, light rail or elevated monorail-all of which are under discussion here.

The organization had run into trouble because all the software available nationally to project commuters' travel patterns had been written to forecast auto traffic on highways, not mass transit, said Mike Dearing, MPO manager.

CIRTA, which includes representatives from Marion and its surrounding counties, also is charging ahead. It has established a $400,000 annual budget, Dearing said. So far, Hamilton and Madison are the only counties to contribute cash. Marion County is providing in-kind services through the MPO.

The search for CIRTA's executive director led to interviews with several candidates, and an offer to one. But the candidate wanted far more than the $100,000 budgeted annually for the position.

Altman said she's started a new search. This time, she's looking for someone with a PR or marketing background, rather than a mass-transit expert.

"Right now, we need an executive director who's a good communicator, who will explain to the public the benefits of mass transit," she said.

Dearing said the setbacks won't derail the movement, though it will be two years before the Legislature has another budget session, typically the best time to request major new expenditures.

"[The delays] may have been a blessing in disguise in some ways, because we were able to get the wagons circled to answer questions and solidify the backing for transit," he said. "We caught our breath."
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