Opinion and Forefront

HOWEY: Expensive anti-Washington obstinance

November 26, 2011

Brian HoweyTwo point four billion dollars.

That is the estimate of the Indy Connect proposal by the Central Indiana Task Force on the cost of developing a mass transit system. Critics who are against any kind of tax increase—even if people go hungry or thousands of rape kits get further backlogged in crime labs—will talk about the costs.

So I’m here to tell you that in our not-so-distant past, such anti-tax fervor has resulted in even more profound costs.

A half century ago, as most states dealt with their combined sewer overflow problems, Indiana and Ohio were conspicuous for kicking that can down the road. As the 20th century wound down, most of the CSO problems in America could be found in those two states.

Why? There was a political philosophy that rejected the notion of taking tax dollars from Washington. Conservative politicians adhered to this notion on an array of policy areas, from school lunches to integration and clean water.

Most Hoosier politicians rejected federal government aid to address the CSO problem. Those were also the days of Nixonian federal revenue sharing, which many communities across the nation used to separate their sanitary and storm sewers.

In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency began mandating clean water standards that moved toward “swimmable” rivers. When I was reporting for NUVO more than a decade ago, our analysis was that Indiana cities and towns faced CSO federal mandates over $10 billion.

Had this problem been dealt with a half century ago, it would have saved Indiana consumers billions of dollars.

No new taxes? Saying no to federal largesse? Sorry, Hoosier folk, you’re paying and today’s conservative politicians like to foist it all off as “unfunded federal mandates,” when in reality it had much to do with bad decisions and a lack of foresight.

Our sewers aren’t the only area where this has happened.

Back in the early 1960s, a young businessman from Decatur Township ran for the Indianapolis school board and was elected. Watching the Civil Rights movement grip the Deep South and knowing that northern cities were as segregated as Little Rock, Dick Lugar developed the Shortridge Plan that called for voluntarily desegregating Indianapolis Public Schools.

But there was an angry conservative backlash, and in a vote that still makes Lugar cringe, the Shortridge Plan was rescinded shortly after its implementation. That was followed by an order by federal Judge S. Hugh Dillin mandating a desegregation busing plan that ignited a prolonged white flight from Indianapolis to suburban counties.

It cost taxpayers untold billions of dollars in busing inner-city children to the townships. The cost of the white flight can probably never be fully calculated. And IPS has never been the same, still bleeding students and suffering from an economic divide that fosters separate and unequal student achievement.

When it comes to investment in mass transit, the critics always point out the costs. They don’t talk about the savings of fewer cars on the road, less wear and tear on the interstates and urban arterials, the pollutants in the air.

You look at Chicago with its interstates clogged even in the dead of night and wonder how it all would have worked (it wouldn’t) without the CTA and the South Shore that extends deep into northern Indiana.

So I applaud Mayor Greg Ballard for making one of his first acts after a riveting re-election campaign to beat a path to the Statehouse to begin this mass transit exploration. Asked about the dreaded and evil “tax increase,” Ballard said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m concerned about trying to attract high-level talent into the city in the future.”

As House Speaker Brian Bosma, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, Senate President Pro Tem David Long and Indiana’s next governor begin to peel back this onion, they need to understand not only the costs of developing the system, but the costs to future Hoosiers of not doing anything.•

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Howey is a third-generation Hoosier journalist who publishes Howey Politics Indiana. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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