Mayor: Massive transit plan open for discussion

An ambitious and expensive proposal to improve transportation options in central Indiana won’t be driven down the
public’s throat, Mayor Greg Ballard said at the unveiling of the study Wednesday morning.

The proposal by an influential private-sector task force includes commuter
rail lines and even toll roads added to local interstate highways.

"This will be the year for a discussion,” said Mayor Greg Ballard. “This is not a take-it-or-leave-it
proposal.”

Backers of the plan, which also suggests improving 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 with a regional transportation system
after 30 years of government studies.

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 under way 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 the hub-and-spoke system used today. Such changes
could reduce a 30- to-60-minute trip to 10 to 20 minutes.

Indianapolis is one of the nation’s largest cities, but its bus transit system
ranks at No. 100, said Hubbard, saying poor public transportation hurts workers
and employers.

“Too many times I’ve found job opportunities for people, but without
transportation they can’t get to work,”said Joe Slash, president
and CEO of the Indianapolis Urban League.

“We need to look at this not as a social thing but as an economic development
tool,” he added.

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 jobs and more than $27 billion
in additional regional economic output. The report estimates a 4-percent increase in the 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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