HETRICK: New kind of road rage over a transportation double standard

I suffer from road rage of a different kind.

Oh, sure. I could give you an earful about left-lane laggards, tailgating, failure to signal, texting while driving, potholes, lane closures, unsynchronized stoplights, four-way-stops, roundabout panic, etc. But that’s not the strain of road rage that ails me most.

And for the record, my disease does not manifest in violent behavior. I don’t ride the horn or run up the rear end of slow drivers. I don’t even exercise my middle finger at offending motorists. (OK, I do occasionally use the term “idiots,” especially in reference to aforementioned left-lane laggards.)

My rage about roads, you see, is that “we the people” keep demanding more of them without budgeting enough to build or maintain them. Then we pretend that roads piled upon roads in concrete spaghetti bowls are somehow cost-effective forms of transportation, while mass-transit alternatives are deemed too expensive.

A few weeks ago, researchers at Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research published a “more of the same” study. As was the case 10 years ago, researchers said, more and more people are flocking to Carmel, Fishers, Greenwood and other suburbs and exurbs while Indianapolis suffers a net loss.

Having done the suburban thing for seven years—and being on the verge of doing it again—I know how this works.

I move north with the masses. We get better schools and pay lower taxes. We jam increasingly inadequate (because of us) roadways and demand more lanes to make our lives easier. But we expect someone else (read: feds, state, urban residents) to help pay for those lanes.

Then the jobs start following the “burb-anites” to the outer belts. Witness last week’s announcement by GEICO, which plans to add 1,200 new insurance jobs—not where bus service and intersecting interstates provide easy access to workers from throughout the metro area—but at 103rd and Meridian streets, where there are traffic jams, stoplights and little or no public transit.

Then, as we’re increasing demand for more and wider roads, we balk at the high cost of construction and maintenance. It’s a holey alliance.

In back-to-back local and national reports on public radio last week, I heard first about the nearly 1,000 potholes patched up in Indianapolis in the past month. Then, NPR reported on an evaluation of our nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Our letter grade: D+, a slight increase from the D the United States received four years ago.

In response to the engineers’ analysis, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told NPR why he thinks our infrastructure is inadequate.

“It’s because of this literally crazed idea that spending money is automatically bad,” Rendell said. “The federal government, state governments have to spend money on certain things that are important—there’s no question about that. We have to invest in our own growth. Businesses invest in their own growth … and so do we.”

But heaven forbid we in central Indiana should even be allowed to vote to spend our own money on improved transit.

We’re now in year two of a heavily lobbied legislative slugfest over a simple issue: Should local citizens be allowed to vote on a referendum to expand and fund mass transit where they live and work?

On March 19, an influential state senator yanked his co-sponsorship of the bill.

“I’ve never been too persuaded by the need for this,” Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, told IBJ.

He must not be sitting in stalled traffic as much as I am.

The next day, The Indianapolis Star carried front-page news that the Tea Party is opposed to the mass-transit initiative.

“Our concerns are not only about the local tax increase, but about the overall cost of such a proposal,” said Chase Downham, president of the Indiana chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

On Facebook recently, one of my friends said she was “skeptical and exhausted” over the mass transit campaign “being rammed down our throats.”

Hmmm. I never visualized a public referendum—citizens controlling their own destinies and dollars—as an act of forced esophageal access.

But here’s my bigger question: If a relatively inexpensive mass transit expansion is subject to such fear and loathing, where’s the rage over roads?

Where are the passionate people opposing the urban sprawl that causes traffic problems in the first place?

Where are the fiscal conservatives arguing against new lanes and new bridges being built without the long-term maintenance funding to support them?

And while we’re at it, where are the home-rule advocates while non-local legislators and Tea Partiers are deciding whether citizens in Greater Indianapolis may choose more-of-the-same asphalt or a complementary mass-transit alternative?

It’s enough to get me screaming at the idiots: “Get out of my lane.”•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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