EDITORIAL: Legislators should let public decide on transit plan

November 13, 2010

A more robust public transportation system might be just what the region needs to connect people with jobs, spark development near transit stops, elevate the city’s stature, and reduce the need to regularly pour millions into widening our roads.

Or it might be a big, unnecessary waste of money.

That’s the $1.2 billion question. That’s roughly the amount local taxpayers could be expected to cover if the $2.5 billion revised plan laid out Nov. 8 by Indy Connect is built. The plan calls for rail service from downtown to Noblesville and Franklin and a dramatic increase in bus service across the region.

There’s widespread agreement that our woeful public transportation system needs help. Whether the public has the appetite to pay for it is the question. One thing is certain: Public transportation has gained traction as a public-policy question since Indy Connect was launched two years ago.

The collaboration of private-sector interests and government transportation planners set out to attack the long-simmering question of public transportation in economic terms by doing a cost-benefit analysis.

Involving respected private-sector players the likes of Mark Miles, president and CEO of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, and Allan Hubbard, a longtime local business executive, was supposed to give us a more credible answer than what we’ve heard before from people who make a living planning and promoting public transportation systems.

So, what did this public-private partnership determine? That public transit’s benefits would indeed be worth the cost. The final determination should be made by taxpayers, of course. They’re the ones who would pay. And they’ve filled meeting halls with comments both pro and con since Indy Connect began gathering feedback on the plan.

But the public is in danger of being shut out of the process.

The General Assembly decides whether the various central Indiana counties that are part of the plan can take the question to voters. That’s anything but certain in today’s political climate, which is decidedly anti-tax, anti-spend.

Elected representatives sticking constituents with a tax increase, especially in this economy, is a bad idea. But letting voters decide for themselves is another matter entirely.

Legislators know the difference. In recent years, they’ve grown accustomed to putting tough questions before voters. Tax questions are regularly the subject of referenda these days. And in recent years, Republicans, who will call the shots next year with their large majorities in both houses, have complained loudly that voters should have a say on the question of gay marriage.

Do they really trust voters, or were their comments only political bluster meant to score points on that particular issue?

We’ll find out soon enough. Will they protect us from ourselves, or trust us with an up-or-down vote on funding public transportation?•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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