Mayor: Massive transit plan open for discussion

February 10, 2010

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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