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EDITORIAL: Highways, transit not either/or choice

December 15, 2012

There’s no doubt the state must continue to invest in its highways. Indiana can hardly live up to its status as the Crossroads of America without well-maintained interstates that allow motorists to get where they’re going.

So it makes sense that top lawmakers are looking for ways to replace the $60 million-plus in gas tax revenue the Indiana Department of Transportation is losing each year as vehicles become increasingly fuel-efficient.

As J.K. Wall reports on page 1A this week, Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley is weighing a new license plate tax as a way to plug the gap—and possibly generate enough funding to take on new projects like a so-called Commerce Connector around Indianapolis.

“Our road infrastructure is more critically important to us than it ever was,” Kenley told IBJ, citing the state’s thriving logistics industry.

No argument here. But any discussion of the state’s transportation priorities would be incomplete without including the one topic legislators have been reluctant to take on: mass transit.

Transit advocates once again are trying to persuade lawmakers to allow voters in Marion and Hamilton counties to decide whether to pay for a $1.3 billion bus-and-light-rail system in central Indiana. Past attempts have made it about as far as a brand-new driver navigating rush-hour traffic on Interstate 69.

Mass transit is largely seen as a local issue, and while it is true that most users would be area residents looking for a transportation alternative, it’s foolhardy to assume they would be the only ones to benefit.

Proponents are quick to point to a host of other advantages, including the housing, retail and office projects that often spring up in clusters around transit stops. Such transit-oriented development creates walkable, sustainable communities, according to advocacy group Reconnecting America. And of course, as more motorists embrace mass transit, it should reduce the strain on our overburdened roads—and transportation budgets.

The state is far from alone in its predicament. Cities and towns throughout Indiana also are short on cash to pay for road maintenance. One estimate puts their collective shortfall at $500 million a year.

Kenley’s possible solution for that conundrum, a local option gas tax, is sure to generate heated debate from all corners. Still, having that topic on the table makes us optimistic that lawmakers realize they don’t need to find a one-size-fits-all solution.

With 12,000 miles of existing highways and interstates, Indiana is certain to be a perpetual construction zone—and money pit—regardless of the fate of a mass-transit initiative. But transit needs to be part of the equation in a state that for too long has relied on one mode of transportation.•

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

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