Mass transit plan faces likely defeat, bill sponsor says

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Indiana Rep. Jeff Espich said his bill backing a central Indiana mass-transit plan faces almost certain defeat in the House Ways and Means Committee, and he is still mulling whether or not to bring it to a vote.

Espich, R-Uniondale, who is chairman of the committee, said Friday morning that he knows of only two legislators—himself and Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington—who would vote yes on House Bill 1073, which would OK voter referendums in Marion and Hamilton counties for the purpose of raising taxes to fund an expanded bus and train system.

The committee has 25 legislators.

“No one else has suggested to me that they have any interest, not only in co-sponsoring it, but even in voting for it,” Espich said. “I am hard-pressed to bring it up and see it get soundly defeated.”

Espich authored the bill based on the mass-transit plan created by the Central Indiana Transit Task Force. It has the backing of many central Indiana business leaders, including the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

The plan calls for raising income taxes in Hamilton and Marion counties by 0.2 percent in order to double the bus service currently provided by Indy Go and to construct a commuter rail line from Noblesville to downtown Indianapolis. The initial plan would cost $1.3 billion over 10 years.

The Central Indiana Mass Transit Authority announced Thursday it had secured signed petitions from 4,500 individuals and nearly 90 employers calling for the legislature to approve voter referendums.

“If central Indiana wants to be competitive in attracting and retaining businesses and top talent, then we have to address our lack of public transportation,” said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority. “The next logical step is to give taxpayers the right to decide whether they approve local revenues going toward a dedicated transportation fund.”

HB 1073 would not technically approve a tax increase, but would instead give voters the right to approve one through a referendum. But that distinction is proving insufficient to many legislators, Espich said, because it’s easy to see how a political opponent would accuse supporters of voting for a tax increase.

“Tax increases are never easy,” Espich said. And this one, since it focuses exclusively on central Indiana, is particular hard for legislators from outside the region, because they could be accused of supporting a tax increase while winning no benefit whatever for their constituents."

“For people who don’t represent central Indiana, quite frankly, there’s no reason to vote for it,” Espich said.

He added, however, that if there was strong support for the bill among central Indiana legislators, their colleagues from the rest of the state would “respect” that. So far, however, no House member from central Indiana is on record supporting the bill.

Espich said he has not made a final decision on bringing HB 1073 for a vote. He said he thinks the issue is one that will take multiple years to build up support, but he worries a lopsided defeat may hurt the plan’s chances in future sessions.

“What’s best for the bill?” Espich said. “I haven’t decided honestly.”


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