Mass-transit bill leaps one hurdle, heads for another

A Senate committee Wednesday passed a measure that would give central Indiana residents a chance to vote on whether to pay higher taxes to expand the region’s bus system and add a high-speed rail line.

But lawmakers sent the bill to the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee to consider the bill’s impact on tax and fiscal issues where it may face tougher going. Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, a member of the committee, recently expressed reservations about the bill and withdrew his sponsorship.

HB 1011 — which passed the Local Government Committee on a 7-2 vote — would let officials in Marion County and neighboring counties decide whether to put a referendum on the ballot asking voters to OK a mass-transit district and a tax increase to pay for it.

The tax increase could be up to 0.3 percentage points and the increase would raise $1.3 billion for more buses, more routes to go more places, and eventually the construction of a light-rail system between downtown Indianapolis and Hamilton County.

Proponents of the system, using federal grants, have mounted a widespread advertising and public relations campaign to tout possible benefits of the plan. Some of them spoke at Wednesday's hearing.

Sen. Pat Miller, R-Indianapolis, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said the bill is needed because central Indiana’s “current transit system is woefully inadequate.”

Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, the bill’s author, said the bill would allow voters to decide on whether to improve the system and that doing so could mean more jobs for the region.

Charles Bantz, chancellor of IUPUI, agreed that the bill would foster economic development, mostly by keeping IUPUI students and students at other Hoosier colleges and universities interested in staying in Indiana.

“We think it’s critical that we fight the brain drain,” he said.

Richard Walsh, a student at DePauw University who also serves as the director of operations at Refined Sites, a web design company he helped create, said he and his business partners would like to stay in Indiana, but one thing may hold them back.

“There’s one catch: Transportation,” he said.

He said transportation costs under the current transit system inhibit accessibility to potential clients.

But opponents of the bill are concerned about the potential cost to taxpayers.

Chase Downham, the Indiana director of Americans for Prosperity, said he is mostly concerned because overall, transit projects are “often proven to be much more expensive than originally estimated.”

Randall O’Toole, a senior fellow from the Cato Institute who calls Oregon home, said costs are always more than projections. He said the bill assumes that the state will be able to get grants.

He said the transit expansion will not bring what supporters promise that it will — urban growth and economic development. He associated transit investment in several other cities with a loss of growth.

O’Toole said the state would be better off following the example of Las Vegas and privatizing transit operations.

“I’m for transit too,” he said. “But I’m for transit that doesn’t cost a lot more money.”

But Ron Gifford, executive director of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force and Indy Connect Now, said proponents of the bill have researched other cities to get best practices and learn from mistakes.

“In this community, we know how to build things,” he said. “We know how to build them on time. We know how to build them on budget, and this transit system will not be any different from that.”

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, are still skeptical of the bill but want to see it move forward and hear more discussion.

“There are certainly still some things that concern me about the bill,” he said. “But I want to keep this moving along and give the appropriations committee the opportunity to review it.”

Bray encouraged supporters to continue to make sure the public has plenty of input on the issue.

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