Task force endorses regional taxes for mass transit

After 30 years of government studies of a regional transportation system, an influential private-sector group on Wednesday
is set to unveil its own plan that includes commuter rail and even toll lanes added
to local interstate highways.

Backers of the comprehensive plan intended to also
improve local bus and highway connections said the work by the Central Indiana Transit
Task Force amounts to a crucial private-sector endorsement needed to finally proceed.

But
a potentially controversial component of the plan is a local option sales tax that
could cost residential taxpayers an extra $180 a year to help fund a system estimated
to cost $6.7 billion.

That’s likely to be a tough sell in a region already weary
of paying for sports stadiums and, despite growing congestion, not yet suffering world-class gridlock.

Besides
backing municipal planners’ long-studied recommendation of a northeast commuter rail line to Fishers and later to Greenwood,
the task force recommends in-street passenger rail tracks on or alongside Washington Street on the east and west sides of
the city—perhaps extending to Indianapolis International Airport.

Passenger trains ran atop Washington
Street in the early 1900s; some of the track still is visible at the bottom of potholes.

Equally as radical is the task force’s recommendation of adding toll lanes along segments of Interstate
69, northeast of Interstate 465—and along Interstate 65, southeast of the city.

The
lanes, which would be in addition to existing lanes, would provide motorists with an "express"
option as well as help generate cash for other transit improvements.

"The lanes would
be expected to raise more than they would cost to operate, thus providing a source of funding for other
transportation infrastructure in the city," the transit task force report states.

The study has been
underway for the last year and has been led by Allan Hubbard, co-founder of Indianapolis-based acquisition
firm E&A industries. Hubbard served both Bush Administrations, including a role as assistant
to the president for economic policy and director of the National Economic Council.

The
task force is a collaboration of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Central Indiana
Corporate Partnership and the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

The group also recommends
expanding the reach of IndyGo into neighboring counties and implementing more direct
routes as compared with a hub-and-spoke system used today. Such changes could reduce a 30-to-60-minute
trip to 10 to 20 minutes.

While there have been no shortage of fanciful
rail, bus and highway schemes over the years, all have stopped dead over how
to raise hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars to pay for them.

The
task force offers ideas beyond the dubious concept of toll road revenue. Another is to expand
current roadway investments at a "slightly lower rate" than envisioned in the city and state’s 25-year regional
transportation plan. Instead, total investment would be reduced by about $600 million, to $8.3 billion—with the savings
shifted to the other transportation infrastructure proposals.

Also, taxpayers in counties benefiting from the
revamped system would bear some financial burden.

The task force recommends the use of a referendum to ratify
a local option sales tax to support construction and operating costs.

"We estimate
the amount of an additional sales tax to be between 0.35 to 0.50 percent," states a summary of the
task force report. "This amounts to approximately $10 to $15 per month per household on average
across the region."

The use of a local option income tax to fund transit improvements
is not dissimilar from the concept raised by rail backers that has come up in proposed state legislation
in recent years.

The funding ideas from the private sector report go a long way toward helping reach a consensus,
said Ehren Bingaman, director of the Central Indiana Transportation Authority, the agency that would implement a
future transit system. "The idea of how to fund it is probably the furthest the conversation has gone."

Bingaman said he was encouraged by what the task force found and credited the value of its cost-benefit analysis approach. 
Having such a private sector "buy-in" to transit is an important hurdle to clear in the process, he added.

The task force Wednesday is officially handing off its report to CIRTA, IndyGo, the Indiana Department of Transportation
and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization.

What’s next is a series of about 30 public meetings
around the region, starting this month, to gauge public reaction.  One official noted that among
the issues to be debated, for example, is a task force recommendation to stop the rail service in Fishers
rather than farther north in Noblesville, as CIRTA and MPO have contemplated.

The push
for rail transit comes amid growing highway congestion and pollution, and as IndyGo struggles to find
the funding necessary to adequately serve residents who don’t have cars or want additional
public transit options.

"We estimate our lack of transportation options and the accompanying increases
in congestion result in economic losses of over $150 million per year," states the task force report. "We forecast
that by 2035, if left unaddressed, these losses will grow to $690 million annually. Continuing our current transportation
strategy will not adequately meet our needs in an increasingly competitive world."

The report claims the
system could result in 4,500 new jobs and over $27 billion in additional regional economic output. The
report estimates a 4-percent increase in value of property near rail service in Marion County.

The report proposes phasing-in bus service enhancements over the next five years. The northeast
rail line would begin in five years, a southern passenger rail service in 10 years and Washington Street
light rail in 15 years.

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