Health Care and Economy and Economic Development and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

VIEWPOINT: Get on board with transit, or miss the bus

March 31, 2008

The Crossroads of America is at a crossroads-a transportation crossroads. And the direction we choose will affect our area's competitiveness and economy for decades.

It's imperative that we embrace mass transit. Mass transit matters because it correlates to a key concern for companies planning to move or expand: access to a qualified work force. In choosing a community, companies assess obvious factors such as site acquisition costs and taxation, but even those typically take a back seat to work-force access. If we're to compete, we must ensure good connections to workers.

No one knows this better than Indianapolis' business leaders. In a recent survey conducted by local law firm Ice Miller and Inside Indiana Business, they identified mass transit as the No. 2 local economic issue-second only to health care costs.

So, what has kept us from embracing mass transit? Two factors strike me as most prominent: cost and public ambivalence.

Certainly, developing mass transit is an expensive proposition-but not developing it is more costly. Consider that the Indiana Department of Transportation estimates that adding one lane to Interstate 465 all around the city would cost roughly $1 billion, but it would be less effective than mass transit in reducing congestion.

Funding a comprehensive mass-transit solution will require public subsidy, just as roads and highways do now. And because a transit system will cross municipal and county lines, the question of which "public" should pay that public subsidy is particularly thorny. How will we pay for a system that delivers suburban commuters to downtown Indianapolis, or that connects workers in the city's core to workplaces in surrounding communities?

The answer lies in a solution that will play an increasing role for Indianapolis in the coming years: We must take a regional view, adopting some combination of regional taxes and fees. We must break out of tax jurisdictions established in 1816 and implement an approach that reflects modern-day regional economics.

Fortunately, I see hope in an existing model: the funding of the Lucas Oil Stadium. Because the entire metropolitan area benefits from the stadium economically and culturally, surrounding counties share the cost through increased food and beverage taxes. A similar regional approach could be used to fund regional mass transit.

I also see hope on the public ambivalence front. While Hoosiers are notoriously car-bound, our experiences with shuttle buses during the Hyperfix construction project and with the new IndyGo Express Bus-linking downtown with Fishers and with the Indianapolis International Airport-have shown that, under the right circumstances, Hoosiers will use public transportation. Of course, it doesn't hurt that gas prices have reached alltime highs and likely will stay at these levels.

The pieces seem to be falling into place for our area to embrace mass transit. I can imagine a time when light rail reaches to surrounding counties, connecting them to one another and to the city's heart. That rail web will be supported by a shortroute bus system that helps connect workers' homes and workplaces. All of that will remove the competitive disadvantage we now suffer when compared to peer cities with mass transit.

And the whole system will be supported by a regional funding mechanism that not only supports mass transit but also fuels economic growth and offers another model for regional collaboration.

For these reasons, the Crossroads of America is at a crossroads. The decisions we make regarding mass transit today will determine whether we look back at this simply as a time where opportunity could have been seized or as a true turning point in the region's economic development.



Dye is executive vice president of Browning Investments.
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