Mass Transit and Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Interstate network isn't enough

May 14, 2011

Indiana’s interstate highway network is something to behold. Interstates 70, 74 and 65 crisscross the state. Interstate 69 will join them once it’s extended from here to Evansville. And when the Hoosier Heartland Highway Corridor is finished between Fort Wayne and Lafayette and U.S. 31 is upgraded to interstate standards from here to South Bend, you won’t be able to go far in Indiana without going over, under or onto an interstate highway.

Perhaps the fact we’re so thoroughly outfitted with roads explains the reluctance of Hoosier lawmakers and transportation planners to get serious about alternative modes of transportation. But get serious they must. Our country’s transportation future is too uncertain for Hoosiers to be almost entirely car-dependent.

That didn’t stop some legislators from trying to take us backward in the session just ended. Public transit advocates had to fight off an effort to sharply reduce transit funding in the new state budget. Advocates ultimately preserved funding at around $42 million a year, but legislators did away with the formula that’s been used to fill the coffers of the Public Mass Transit Fund, which distributes money to IndyGo and other transit providers around the state. Instead, the budget calls for a lump-sum payment to the fund, leaving transit advocates to wonder if they’ll be starting from scratch when it comes time to write the next state budget.

They’re also left to wonder what meaning to attach to two transportation studies that were approved by the Legislature.

Lawmakers who wanted to reduce funding for transit instead won authorization to have the Commission on State Tax and Finance Policy study this summer what role the state should play in public transit funding. Is the suggestion that perhaps the state should play no role?

Another measure, House Bill 1371, creates the Joint Study Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Assessments and Solutions to spend two years taking a comprehensive look at the state’s transportation infrastructure and funding needs through 2035.

An optimist might view that study as an opportunity for the state to set a course for a more well-rounded transportation policy. But we wonder if the two-year duration of the study will be cited to derail the push next year for more transit funding.

IndyConnect, the coalition seeking to diversify transportation options in Indianapolis, is expected to ask the 2012 Legislature to authorize referenda in which local governments could ask voters to sign off on a dedicated, ongoing source of funds, such as a percentage of sales or income tax revenue.

If legislators will listen to the IndyConnect folks with an open mind, it could signal the beginning of a more well-rounded transportation system for the state—one that doesn’t rely entirely on our network of interstates, impressive as they are.•

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

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