Legislators to look at mass transit’s potential: Review is timely for backers of a northeast transit line

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If a downtown-to-Fishers mass transit system ever happens, its first stop-figuratively, at least-will be at the Statehouse.

There, at least one legislator could be influential in getting the state’s help toward building a system that could cost upwards of $1.5 billion, depending on the type of transit vehicle used.

Rep. Terri J. Austin, D-Anderson, who chairs the House Roads and Transportation Committee, plans to convene a summer study committee in August that will look at the state’s future in mass transit.

“I really want us to begin to increase the state’s support and assistance to mass transportation,” Austin said.

The state likely would have to grant authority for local governments to assess a regional transit tax. Such local support could cover half the cost; the other could come from federal taxpayer funds.

Unfortunately for transit advocates, over the years, “the state has been somewhat reluctant to help advocate the notion of mass transit,” Austin said.

Currently, the northeast corridor transit system initiative is a regional effort led by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Central Indiana Transit Authority.

Later this year, officials will reveal the preferred route and vehicle type for what would be the first rapid transit system in the region since the last interurban cars wobbled out of downtown 66 years ago. Having leaders like Austin on board will be essential.

While they pretty much know where to sink the spikes, officials still aren’t sure exactly how they’ll pay for the $500 million to $1.5 billion route from downtown to Fishers and, perhaps, to Noblesville.

While it’s easy to get an acknowledgement from municipalities in the region that northeast-side highway congestion is worsening, getting locals to support a tax for a transit line their residents may never use is probably going to be a tough sell.

That sort of thinking has helped stymie funding over the years for the city’s only real transit operation, the IndyGo bus system. Unlike systems in cities such as Columbus, Ohio, IndyGo doesn’t have the resources of a regional tax to help it fund new routes into outlying counties.

“This issue is not a local Indianapolis issue. This is a local and statewide issue,” said Gilbert Holmes, CEO of the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp. The bus system covers a sliver of its operating budget from state sales tax-the rest comes from federal and city taxes and fare box revenue.

The legislative study committee will look at transit potential statewide.

The committee, the result of legislation Austin brought forward during the last session, will look at federal funding, review mass transit in other states, and recommend ways to use mass transit to mitigate congestion, boost economic development and improve quality of life.

“Mass transit has got to be part of our future,” Austin added.

The bulk of the state’s rapid transit funding comes from the state’s Public Mass Transportation Fund. Most of that goes to bus lines, including IndyGo.

During the last session, legislators approved an increase in the percentage of state sales tax going to the fund, to 0.076 percent from 0.0635 percent. The increase should produce $35 million a year. That could mean an additional $2 million in state support for IndyGo. It may use it to increase the frequency of service.

Even if some of that could be diverted to the northeast corridor transit system, it would be a drop in the bucket.

Rather, the Legislature might be called on to give central Indiana municipalities the authority to levy a local tax. Before then, the Central Indiana Transit Authority would need to authorize construction of the northeast transit line.

Transit planners have discussed everything from a system built mostly by local funds to one that also uses federal dollars. Competition for federal funds is growing more difficult, though, with several cities contemplating new or expanded transit systems.

Austin said she wants to look in detail at what other cities are doing. Denver, for example, has more than 14 miles of light rail already and has plans for at least 67 more miles.

Austin pointed to estimates that rapid transit brings Denver more than $4 billion in economic impact already, everything from trackside developments for housing to commercial buildings.

“We have to look at [mass transit] in economic development terms,” she said of the debate in Indiana.

Already, her hometown colleague, Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, has called for the state to study a commuter transit line between Indianapolis and Muncie. Besides relieving highway congestion and boosting ecnomic development, both are making a case for transit as a quality of life issue.

While not offering any details, Austin said state leaders need to think creatively about funding, perhaps looking at the public-private partnership model Gov. Mitch Daniels has championed for building highway projects.

At the same time, Austin has urged caution, saying any such arrangement would require plenty of public scrutiny.

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