Mayors back transit tax hike in Marion, Hamilton counties

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Voters in Marion and Hamilton counties could be asked to approve a 0.3-percent increase in their local income-tax rates to help pay for a $1.3 billion rail and expanded bus system built over the next decade.

That’s the long-awaited local funding mechanism to emerge from the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, which announced its plan Tuesday morning after nearly three years of study. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard were among those making the announcement at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.transit table

The next step: Obtain approval in the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly for a ballot referendum next November.

The message to legislators will be “allow the people to have a vote,” said Mark Miles, head of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, which has been leading the transit task force efforts.

Legislative leaders have previously indicated a reluctance to pay for Indianapolis-area transit funding via a state sales-tax increase, thus the transit group’s proposal to tap local income taxes in both counties.

The proposed increase would boost Marion County’s local-option income tax to 1.92 percent from 1.62 percent; Hamilton County’s income-tax rate would rise to 1.3 percent from 1 percent.

 A single taxpayer in either county earning $50,000 a year would pay about $12.25 more a month—or about $147 a year.
Details of the plan:

— Double the amount of bus service in Marion County, which currently is served by IndyGo.

— Launch an express bus service between Marion County and Hamilton County by 2014.

— Introduce bus rapid-transit, or BRT, in four corridors, including Washington Street, Keystone Avenue and 38th Street .  The BRT line would have more distance between stops and have its own stations. It would speed bus flow through the use of dedicated lanes and traffic-signal prioritization.

— Operate a 22-mile rail line between Union Station and Noblesville atop the Nickel Plate rail corridor by 2021. This is the most expensive element in the $1.3 billion plan, at $625 million.

These elements are consistent with a plan the task force revealed last year that would eventually extend rail and bus service to other surrounding counties – likely first to Hendricks and Johnson Counties. Those future segments would have to be approved by taxpayers in those counties.

For now, Marion and Hamilton counties are the focus.  Marion County is already the largest user of public transit, although IndyGo is perennially underfunded and thus constrained to expand.

Fast-growing Hamilton County is experiencing worsening highway congestion, particularly in the Interstate 69 corridor in Fishers.

Both Ballard and Brainard framed the transit system as a key tool for economic development and for keeping the region competitive with other large metro areas that already offer transit amenities.

Joe Slash, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Urban League, said there have been many times where his organization has found job opportunities for clients who couldn’t get to the job because of a lack of public transportation connections.

Beyond better access to jobs, the system could provide connections to educational opportunities, better access to health care and a lifeline to senior citizens who can no longer drive, Brainard said.

Both Brainard and Hamilton County Commissioner Christine Altman noted that although such a transit system has been discussed for decades, the growing problem of urban sprawl and its costs in the form of increased government services make it time to move ahead.

“We have this big sprawl in the region…we’re very disconnected,” said Brainard. “This system will help pull us together as a region.”

But will taxpayers have the stomach for a tax increase for a system almost certain to get more expensive over time? The transit task force is betting Marion and Hamilton County residents are ready to pull the trigger, given IndyGo’s perennially poor funding and Hamilton County’s growing highway bottlenecks.

“We think [those residents] are the first that are likely to opt in. ... We think this is probably the minimum system that would get public support,” said Ron Gifford, executive director of the Central Indiana Transit Tax Force.

Transit leaders expect 46 percent of capital revenue to come from federal sources for transit projects. Gifford said the task force tempered its expectations of federal funds, noting cutbacks in federal transit funding. Leaders are assuming no more than 32 percent of capital costs will covered by a federal grant.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t get to the point five years from now where, ‘Oops, we don’t have enough money,’ as other communities have done,” Gifford said.

The finer details of the Marion/Hamilton County system are still subject to study. Some early estimates indicate the train line could have up to 12 stops between downtown Indianapolis and Noblesville.

Engineering work also needs to be furthered to firm up a picture of the bus-rapid-transit line down busy corridors such as Washington Street. BRT was chosen because of its relatively lower cost compared to rail. But, “it’s designed to emulate the light-rail experience,” Gifford said, noting the use of rail-like stations at key points and dedicated right of way in some places.

The train cars likely would be lightweight units powered by efficient diesel engines. They wouldn’t make the ruckus of a traditional diesel-electric locomotive.

The plan would create a new metropolitan transit authority, into which IndyGo would be folded. The authority board would include members from each county served by the system.

It remains to be seen who will carry a bill during the upcoming legislative session for the referendum plan.  If all goes according to plan, local residents would probably notice increased bus service starting in 2014.

Expanded bus service and rail lines have been studied for years by local transit planners. Groups such as the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority have conducted numerous studies showing public support for expanded transit.

It’s unclear whether the public is willing to pay higher taxes, however, especially in this economic climate.

In central Indiana, highways have received the lion’s share of funding over the years, particularly under Gov. Mitch Daniels’ ambitious “Major Moves” highway program.

The transit task force points out that the $1.3 billion plan is less than the $1.5 billion designated in recent years by the Indiana Department of Transportation for the rebuilding of Interstate 465 on the west side, upgrades to U.S. 31 in Hamilton County, and planned expansion of I-465/I-69 on the northeast side.

Still, leaders were peppered with questions about the cost of the transit plan Tuesday morning.

“Sometimes people say that transportation is expensive. A lot of what people don’t realize is all transportation is expensive,” Brainard said.
Slash said the region risks increase fragmentation and stagnation without better transportation options.



  • Monon Trail
    Why not consider a more central line. A lot of federal dollars went into the Monon Trail for public transportation and if you read the fine print, an option is for an elevated rail system to be built above it.
  • Why
    Buses in Indy drive around with mostly empty seats. Perhaps more routes are needed but the cost can be offset by using smaller vehicles.
  • Lawrence?
    It has seemed odd that the city of Lawrence does not "pay to play" for IndyGo. Yet one of the area's largest employers )DFAS) is located smack in the middle of this, sleepy, town and lots of folks already ride the bus. I work 3 miles away and would love to ride but would have to go downtown first. What sense does that make? Social Security has a new office in Lawrence - they need more bus routes to helkp those folks. New businesses are springing up on Pendleton Pike. They need workers. If Lawrence played a more active role, there could be more routes to help residents, businesses and employees.
  • Start here please
    I am for fixing the existing roads and infrastructure, before we blow this money on a transit system. Why not make I-69 easier to exit @ 37/116th and @ 82/465 as well? I'm interested in seeing how many wrecks happen monthly at these 2 junctures. Don't even get me started about the issues on the West side of town. Why not make our current roads better, before we jump in and try something that may not be welcomed and utilized.
  • Not a good idea
    I doubt that the population is dense enough to benefit from this proposal. It will be too inconvenient to get to a station incur travel time then get from a station to the ultimate destination. I think it will have to be very heavily subsidized. Additionally, I think that it will add to congestion when dedicated lanes and bike lanes consume so much of the available street capacity that has been traditionally dedicated to autos. Grid locked drivers will be pretty upset as they see largely empty buses and completely empty bike lanes nearby as they idle in in their car.
  • Road funding vs transit funding....

    Read this article to see just how out of balance funding is and how subsidized roadways are.
  • Choo Chew Toy
    This is supposed to be a business newspaper, yet like so many businesses now, it cares not at all for the small businessmen and women who have to pay for these pipe dreams. Why don't you little boys hop a LUV flight to Austin and ride Cap Metro before you spend 1.3 large of the rest of our money? What a joke light rail is. Little boys. Toy trains. Get the picture?
  • fact checker
    Actually, the new airport has been funded through user rates and charges, and not local property tax revenue. The I-70 relocation near airport was funded by the tax payers.
  • Cost
    I think some of the money for this plan should come from money already allocated for "road" improvements. Also, Johnson and Hendricks county should be included in this plan as well so growth can be managed, roads used more effectively and to lower the tax burden. Fuel taxes should be considered even if minimal just to encourage better use of resources.
  • Clarification
    Could someone clarify what percentage of the transit tax total would come from Marion County residents versus Hamilton County residents.
  • Come on!
    It's ridiculous that the starter system would not include light rail from downtown to the airport. That would likely be self-sustaining due to convention business alone, and would be another draw for conventions. Start with that line, then add others...
  • Reverse commute
    Many people communte from Marion to Hamilton County. I can't tell if this mass transit plan fully addresseses the need for better transportation to and in Hamilton County. Sure I could get to Fishers or Carmel via express bus, but without improved bus service throughout Hamilton County, I'd have to walk 4 miles one way to reach my office from the express bus terminus in Carmel. I also hope that the development of increased bus service to and in Hamilton County doesn't divert $$ from the transportation services in Marion County.
  • The Same for Roads, too, I presume?
    The same cap for road construction/maintenance as well? We've been subsidizing that for years with no profit. ;-)
  • Wrong approach
    As commented by others before, I generally like the idea of mass transit. But this approach is wrong and is contradictory to the goals of Indianapolis. Indianapolis has a beautiful downtown and many beautiful surrounding neighborhoods which are being revitalized by many people who choose to live where they work (or just choose to enjoy city living). Indeed there is a need for a better mass transit system, but in my opinion, it should be built around the city's core to make it easier for people in Indianapolis to get around. This would actually create more incentives for many people to move to the city. However to reward people who chose to live in the middle of nowhere by providing a tax funded train from their homes to the city is actually creating more incentives to leave the city.
  • Referendum
    If this passes, which it probably will, I would like to see in the referendum a sunset provision and a no cost overrun clause. That way, if we have to pay for it, the taxes will only be for a defined period of time and the cost overruns will be paid by the contractor not the taxpayer.
    • Kaizen not Spend Billions
      The govts approach is wrong. A quality improvement approach is needed. Not a replacement project. The commission should be to study and improve the existing system, step by step, and come back to the public for money. A demographer should drive the growth plan, not special interests.
    • I'm with Bob
      Why haven't increases in oil and gas taxes in Marion & Hamilton county been discussed? And why is there no input from INDOT? I'd like to see dollars funneled into mass transit from their budget, not mine. I want the tax money I already spend to pay for trains, not roads.
    • Disaster looms
      I live in Fishers. It takes me 1/2 hour to get to work in downtown Indy, door to door, by car. How long would it take me to drive to the train, park, board, arrive at the downtown station, and walk to work? An hour? At least? Look at other cities with mass transportation (Chicago, Boston, New York). They STILL HAVE congested highways, plus their mass transit systems run in the red every year. As more companies transition to tele-communting, more people will be working from home and the demand for the rail will decrease, but the system will still be costing a fortune. Ticket prices will have to increase (or taxes will) due to reduced ridership. The rail system is not needed, not wanted, and is way too expensive - and will only get more expensive.
    • Wrong Arguement
      Just a toss up......Mitch is spending $3,000,000,000 on an interstate extension that will essentially provide what already exists, plus about $1,000,000,000 - $2,000,000,000 on 465 expansions added to the I-70 changes a few years back plus US 31 changes. I may never use any of these services, but as a community, you see it necessary to supply them with my money. I may never use the proposed first rail line, but I realize its connection to a larger system. The tax increase required for this is minimal compared with the money tagged for road expansion and construction. I would love to allocate some of that massive pot of cash to transit, but some poeple can't part with the lobbying they get from road firms.
    • Transit Tax
      Did anyone notice the tax increments on the two counties? Why should we pay for anything that takes care of hamilton county? Their income per capita is much higher than that of Marion county!Just on that basis alone, they can pay for THEIR OWN way to work!They are the ones who chose to live that far from their jobs, let them pay for their own transportation to and from work! The spend their money in Hamilton county so if they want it, they should pay for it.Let their employers give it as a perk for working at that particular establishment. And don`t allow the owners of said establishments get tax breaks or abatements for this purpose! Also the best system is in Chicago! I know first hand, because I stayed there for a week. I took the train there, bought a transit pass that, connected both the trains, and the buses together! One pass that was good for the week for alittle of nothing!If we end up paying for it , as we probably will, don`t give them better buses than we have in Indy like they did when the buses were from Miller Transportation! They were on Luxury Buses while indy people rode inferior buses, at a higher rate!
    • Economic impact is irrational
      Although I generally would support nearly anything to encourage rapid transit, I question that anyone with a sound financial mind would approve this plan. When you look at the amount that is anticipated to be collected in fees, under $29mil vs. an anticipated cost of $1.3bil, it is telling me there really isn't an anticipated demand for these services. Secondly, I have seen no disclosure for on-going expenses for this project. My guess it is as well unprofitable on a revenue-expense budget. As we all know the government is known for under estimating major projects such as this. My vote would be absolutely not when both the capital costs as well as the budget bleeds red with little return.
    • Another Titanic
      In the first place how many Government projects ever come close to their estimated cost? None that I know of. And secondly, I don't know of any city with a mass transit system that doesn't have to pour millions of dollars into it annually in order for it to stay in operation. And this system would be no different. $1.3 billion....just the tip of the iceberg.
    • YES!! Current Indy Express user
      This rail system would be a fabulous addition to and from Hamilton County. I currently ride the Indy Express Bus and while I love it, the congestion we hit on 37 is pretty insane and takes up the longest part of the commute. We could be home even sooner from downtown :) Commuters don't have to deal with parking in garages, are not stressed upon arrival at work, have no wear-n-tear on our vehicles, and we see the value in mass transportation. $150 per year is definitely worth not having all those cars on 465 or 37
      tearing up the roadways, also making less congestion for those who can't tear themselves away from their cars. I would think both commuters and non-commuters would love this plan!
    • commuter
      I am a daily commuter from Fishers to Downtown Indy and there is no way I will transition to mass transit. for me to drive from home to the train station, ride the train then walk from Union station to work woudl take at least 2x the commute time, lots of headaches, and loss of freedom to leave when I want. And for that, they want to significantly raise my taxes...seems ignorent.

      So I will get to continue to overpay for government services I will never use AND which will not significantly reduce the # of cars on hwy 69.
    • Sustainable Solution
      Oil and gas tax along with user fees are the only way to have sustainable funding for public transit and infrastructure.

    • Its a bad idea.
      I'm a no on this mass transit plan. I'm a strong supporter of both Senator Kenley and my state Senator Pat Miller. But I oppose every aspect of this plan. I don't want an independent, transit authority. I don't want an increase in the sales tax to support it. I don't want light rail in central Indiana. And I don't want a referendum on the subject. I support, instead, a common sense funding of IndyGo. We only fund IndyGo with $56 million dollars a year. We could double this amount and still be cost-efficient compared to these pie in the sky transit plans. And I don't favor any transit routes going to Hamilton County or Greenwood. Marion County funds IndyGo to provide bus service to its residents traveling in and around Indianapolis. Not to provide commuter service to non-residents who choose to live in the suburbs. If Hamilton County wants to provide bus service to its residents that's fine. But previous attempts have been failures. To try to hook Indianapolis residents on the line for some billion dollar transit plan we don't need is ridiculous. Take the existing IndyGo budget and tweak it. An extra ten million would give us bus stop shelters. A few million here and there would add buses, lines and personnel. I don't trust the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, and that's a fact. Mark Miles promised "thousands" of renovated houses as part of his Superbowl Legacy, and we got maybe a hundred, mostly Section 8 apt units. What Indianapolis needs is a better funded IndyGo. Not a new transit authority to bleed us dry and raise taxes. They don't even manage that downtown tif district right. We all pay into it with our property taxes, then they spend it on sports. No. This transit nonsense will never get my vote, and I don't want the General Assembly to waste much time on it. Transit systems in American cities are a joke; failures that bleed taxpayers dry. We need to look to the future in Indianapolis. But it shouldn't include this known money sinkhole. Mark Miles should go back to tennis and spare us his vision.
    • Much needed-but not the right plan
      Instead of looking at moving people from Indianapolis to Carmel or Fishers, mass transit should focus on moving people in Marion county. The bus system is terrible. I am in favor of mass transit because I would gladly park my car permanently; but if I can't get anywhere I need to go-why should I support this? I want to hear about more options. I don't care to pay for the convience of people in Fishers to have a choice, while I pay more in taxes and have no options.
    • Really?
      Mass transit works in places where there is a large concentration of business; Washington, DC, New York City, among others. Not so here. Downtown does not have the monopoly on employment and Fishers does not have the monopoly on homes. Mass transit if effective when workers leave point A to go to point B. Straight line stuff.

      Also, have people moving experts like Disney been consulted? Is light surface rail the best? Most cost effective? Financially viable? I'm sorry, but I'm suspect when a local spokesperson announces that the existing roadbed (railroad) is the best option. Really?
    • Improving public transportation
      Why is the Nickel Plate corridor one of the top priorities for improving public transportation in central Indiana? Simply put, public transportation is a necessity, not a luxury. Two wrongs don't make a right... the Nickel Plate corridor improvement is said to be the most costly of these transit projects and at the same time most of the people that would use it already have their own cars. Public transportation should serve those who need it and have no other option, not those who have the option, but just want something new. What's next, telling someone they can't ride a particular form of public transportation because of the color of their skin or their particular religious belief?

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