Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Legislative session created foothold for transit

March 22, 2014

Years of foot-dragging by Indiana legislators has put the Indianapolis region way behind its peers in developing an effective mass transit system. And the transit funding bill that lawmakers finally approved this year contains some maddening conditions. But make no mistake, passage of the bill is a major milestone in a long, difficult fight.

It means a region whose public transportation network is one of the country’s worst can finally stop spinning its wheels.

The bill, which at press time had not been signed by Gov. Mike Pence, allows six counties in the region to ask voters for permission to fund transit using taxing capacity that already exists via the local option income tax. The tax money is only part of the mix in a funding recipe that would also include fares and donations to foundations that counties are required to set up to capture alternative sources of funds.

Transit proponents note that the bill gives locals flexibility in how their transit systems are governed and operated. And it allows townships adjacent to counties that have approved transit funding to hold a transit funding referendum even if their home county decides not to. If Johnson County opted out, for example, Greenwood’s Pleasant Township could decide to take the question to voters if adjacent Marion County had successfully done so.

That flexibility is countered by some provisions that make little sense. For example, Hendricks County, whose eastern townships have embraced using the grant-funded Plainfield Connector commuter bus, is excluded from the law. County officials in the rural western parts of the county are said to have played a role in asking their state representatives to make sure Hendricks wasn’t included.

The bill also prohibits transit projects that include light rail. Bus rapid transit, which mimics light rail but runs on rubber tires, is gaining popularity nationwide and is the transit mode most likely to be used here. It’s allowed in the bill. But excluding light rail based on the faulty assumption that all light-rail projects are money losers unnecessarily ties the hands of local transportation planners.

If Gov. Pence signs the bill, as he’s expected to do, it’s unlikely a referendum will take place in any of the allowed counties before next year.

We’re confident, though, that when voters get the question, they’ll choose to finally bring the Indianapolis region into the modern age of municipal travel.

Debt or surplus, IPS needs change

The recent controversy over the financial condition of Indianapolis Public Schools is meaningful in the short run, but it doesn’t really change the equation for what used to be the state’s largest public school district.

New Superintendent Lewis Ferebee announced earlier this month that, by his count, the district’s much-discussed $30 million budget deficit is really an $8.4 million surplus. On March 18, the IPS board voted to fire Chief Financial Officer Debra Hineline. Hineline and previous superintendents defended their contention that the district is in a precarious spot financially.

The disagreement doesn’t change the findings of an Indy Chamber report released in February that contained few surprises. IPS is a district with shrinking enrollment, excess school capacity and an approach to management that leaves much to be desired.

Ferebee and the board must press ahead with long-needed reforms, regardless of which budget is correct.•
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