The wheels are beginning to turn on a multi-county transit plan, now that the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority is mostly in place.
The authority, charged with coordinating and, ultimately, administering a regional transit system, was formed at the end of 2004, about the time IBJ asked readers to rank the most pressing issues facing the city. The results of the survey, published last January, revealed public transportation and congestion issues as the largest concern, followed by the need for a new stadium and more convention center space.
Rounding out the top five were upgrading the antiquated sewer system, relieving widespread criminal justice issues such as jail overcrowding, and further streamlining local government to complete the 35-year-old Unigov.
Twelve months after the poll, stadium supporters are reveling in the realization that the Indianapolis Colts will have a new home in 2008, and those whose job it is to lure conventions to the city will get an expanded convention center two years later.
Proponents of further government consolidation got a shot of adrenalin Dec. 19 when the City-County Council narrowly approved merging city and county law enforcement, a component of Mayor Bart Peterson's Indianapolis Works streamlining plan that had been defeated by the council in an earlier vote.
John Myrland, outgoing president of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, welcomes the progress that has been made the past year.
"The future is very bright for the community," he said. "We need to continue to work on regional cooperation and we need to follow the mayor's lead that we can't continue to operate the way we have."
Since a city ordinance established the Regional Transportation Authority in 2004, Indianapolis officials have been trying to convince adjacent counties and communities to join. Greenwood and Shelby County are the only governmental entities that haven't done so.
They should jump on board early this year, said Philip Roth, assistant manager of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is responsible for overseeing the city's comprehensive transportation plan. All urban areas with a population of at least 50,000 are federally mandated to have an MPO.
The aim here, with the authority's help, is to bring a regional transportation system-either rail or extended bus service -to central Indiana. In December, Christine Altman, a Hamilton County commissioner, was elected president of the authority.
The existing IndyGo bus service would extend routes into neighboring counties, while a study concluded last summer by the Indianapolis MPO recommended a light rail system run from downtown to the Hamilton County cities of Fishers and Noblesville. The cost is estimated at $850 million and would be supported by federal funds and local tax money.
The MPO cannot proceed, however, until it completes work recommended by the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA wants the agency to forecast rider numbers to ensure the route selected for Hamilton County stops where traffic would be greatest.
"We're taking some time to do that and to do it properly," Roth said. "Projecting [numbers] for a facility that doesn't yet exist is a delicate matter. [The FTA is] doing it for our protection, as well as the best uses of federal money."
Regarding road improvements, Indiana will receive a record amount of federal highway funding-an average of about $890 million annually until 2009-following Congressional passage of a transportation bill last year. The amount, however, is not enough to cover the state's anticipated 10-year, $10.6 billion road program. To close the gap, Gov. Mitch Daniels is mulling public-private partnerships, such as leasing the Interstate 80 toll road in northern Indiana.
Colts stadium/convention center expansion
Ground was broken Sept. 20 on the new Colts stadium, which should be completed by late 2008. The structure will be built south of the RCA Dome, which will be demolished to make way for an expanded convention center.
The combined cost of the project is expected to top $900 million and will be partly funded by a 1-percent food and beverage tax. Marion and six of the seven surrounding counties, excluding Morgan, adopted the surcharge. State officials estimate the tax will raise about $7.7 million a year, half of which will go toward the stadium and convention center project.
Legislation authorizing the project wrested control away from the city's Capital Improvement Board and gave it to a new seven-member state board that will oversee design and construction.
While the stadium and convention center project may be more high profile, a $435 million plan to overhaul the city's antiquated sewer system is equally important to the city's well-being.
The City-County Council in late October approved the mayor's initiative to increase the amount of raw sewage that's prevented from flowing into the city's waterways during rains or periods of melting snow. The 20-year plan should reduce the number of overflows from an average of 63 per year to four, by expanding wastewater treatment facilities and providing enhanced flooding and drainage control.
Increases to sewer rates and storm water fees during the next three years will fund the upgrades. On average, Marion County homeowner's monthly sewer bills will rise from $9.59 to $17.96 by 2008, with the first increase likely appearing on January bills. Storm water fees will jump $1 to $2.25 per month beginning in the spring. In addition, a sewer connection fee of $2,500 will be assessed on all newhome construction.
The rate hike is the second-the first occurred in 2001-of three separate increases to fund the long-term sewer project, said Jim Garrard, director of the city's Department of Public Works.
"If you look around, we have the lowest rates [among cities of comparable size]," Garrard said. "It's long overdue and needs to happen."
The city has invested more than $200 million since 2000 to reduce overflows by about 145 million gallons a year. The improvements to remedy the situation are estimated to cost between $1.4 billion and $3 billion.
The long-term plan includes new, larger sewers along Pogues Run, Pleasant Run, Bean Creek and parts of Fall Creek and White River to capture overflows and carry them to a holding area. An underground storage tank near Spades Park to capture and store overflows from upper Pogues Run also is among the planned upgrades.
An overcrowded jail, outdated courts and an unfunded liability for police and fire pensions are pressing problems that still need to be addressed.
In early December, Sheriff Frank Anderson proposed freeing up 250 beds in the crowded Marion County Jail by moving most female inmates into a private facility. The goal is twofold: giving the women a better environment for rehabilitation while creating more space in the jail for potentially dangerous inmates.
As many as 300 inmates are released early from the jail each month as a result of a 2001 federal court order intended to ease crowding problems.
Contributing to the overcrowding is the fact that the county court system cannot process cases fast enough due to a shortage of judges, said lawyer John Maley. He is a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP and chairman of the Justice Center Task Force, a joint effort of the Indianapolis and Marion County bar associations.
Formed in 2002, the task force is lobbying for a justice center to be built north of the jail. The city bought a parking lot there for that purpose in 1977.
The proposed construction of a 450,000-square-foot facility, moving at glacial speed, is estimated to cost $79 million and would house the county's criminal courts. The center could be funded by a property tax increase, County Option Income Tax money, or an increase in user fees.
"We can't talk about how much this is going to cost," Maley said. "What's it going to cost if we don't do this?"
Maley was referring to an incident in Atlanta in which a rape suspect shot and killed three people in a downtown courthouse last March. Roughly 70,000 prisoners each year walk among the public at the City-County Building, Maley said, which presents a significant safety issue.
Building a justice center near the jail would solve the problem. And by relocating the criminal courts there, Maley said, more space would be available for civil courts, some of which are operating in cramped quarters. A justice center would also allow county agencies that are located elsewhere, such as the public defender, to return to the City-County Building, saving on rent costs, Maley said.
Members of the task force pressed their case twice last year before the Criminal Justice Planning Council, formed by the City-County Council.
Also on the public safety front, the planning council in December recommended the city borrow against future tax revenue to save the jobs of 48 police officers.
The threat of losing those police officers played an integral role in Peterson's push for cop consolidation, which the City-County Council approved in December. The merger of the Indianapolis Police and Marion County Sheriff's departments will happen in 2007 after a task force spends this year working out the details.
Law enforcement consolidation is but one component of Indianapolis Works, a far-reaching consolidation plan for local government that the mayor pitched to the state legislature last year.
The legislature is expected to revisit other components of the plan, including merging city and township fire departments, in this year's session.
Also on the list
Other issues that made the "to do" list of IBJ readers last year included:
Banning smoking in public workplaces. The City-County Council went halfway last year when it voted to prohibit smoking in most restaurants. Bars that don't admit patrons younger than 18, private clubs and cigar bars are excused. The ban goes into effect March 1.
Maintaining the current timetable for the billion-dollar Indianapolis International Airport midfield terminal project. About 65 percent of the project has been bid, and officials say the terminal remains on schedule to open in the last quarter of 2008.
Keeping the IPS capital improvement projects on track. More than half of Phase 1 projects are complete and occupied. By the end of this year, half of Phase 2 projects will be under construction. Phase 3 of the 10-year, $832 million project has yet to be funded.