Mass transit opponent pitches wider roads

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A leading opponent of the plan for regional mass transit is floating an alternative that calls for widening north-south commuter corridors like Martin Luther King Jr. Street, Capitol Avenue and College Avenue.

Republican Sen. Brent Waltz said the Indy Connect plan fails to address the fact that the “overwhelming number of Hoosiers is never going to use mass transit.”

Miller Miller

The $1.3 billion Indy Connect plan would double local bus service, add express routes to the suburbs, and build five rapid-transit lines over 10 years.

Waltz is in a good position to push his proposal, since he’s a member of the legislative study committee that will essentially decide whether the mass transit issue lives to see another session of the Indiana General Assembly.

A bill that would have allowed Marion and surrounding counties to hold referendums on income-tax hikes to pay for Indy Connect cleared the House last session but faced strong opposition from Waltz and other Marion County Senate Republicans. The bill was revised to create the study committee, which is set to start work in August.

Proponents of the Indy Connect plan argue that the Legislature should give local officials the funding mechanism and stay out of transit planning, but that might have been an unrealistic expectation.

“I think the committee is clearly going to want to understand what they’re going to get for the money,” said Chairwoman Sen. Pat Miller, a Republican who sponsored the transit bill last session. Miller said she plans to dedicate the first meeting in August to exploring mass-transit concepts.

Christine Altman, a Hamilton County commissioner and president of the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority, said she hopes the Indy Connect plan will form the basis for most of the committee’s discussions.

Altman noted that the Indy Connect plan has been recognized by the Federal Transit Administration for its comprehensiveness.

“The FTA has commended … this planning process because of the multiple, multiple outreach efforts made to try to make this a community plan,” she said.

Indy Connect is a product of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, composed of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Central Indiana Community Foundation.

Waltz’s plan is a short, three-point narrative that does not include cost estimates. In addition to wider roads for cars, he calls for using bus-based rapid transit, which runs buses over existing streets with fixed stops and raised platforms.

The Indy Connect plan also would use bus rapid transit, and it contemplated light rail on the old Nickel Plate Railroad bed from Noblesville to downtown.

Waltz, who represents southern Marion County and part of Johnson County, called the $483 million light-rail component an “epic” waste of money that also would leave his constituents with lesser service.

Indy Connect proponents have said the northeast corridor could use bus rapid transit as well.

“The supporters of mass transit seem to be distancing themselves from the light-rail line,” Waltz said. “I consider it vindication for those of us who had concerns.”

The third leg of Waltz’s proposal is to “reform” IndyGo, the Indianapolis bus service. Under the Indy Connect plan, IndyGo and the property-tax revenue it pulls from Marion County would be absorbed into a new, regional transit authority.

Road money

Waltz’s road-widening proposal could become a lightning rod of its own.

He wants to create two or three corridors that would augment Binford Boulevard and Fall Creek Parkway, the main route for Hamilton County commuters headed downtown.

If Capitol Avenue or College Avenue would look like Binford Boulevard, Altman asked, “How many people would lose their houses? What’s the impact on neighborhoods?”

Indy Connect proponents argue that in-town commuter routes will be less congested as people switch to mass transit.

waltz-brent-mug.jpg Waltz

Waltz isn’t buying it.

“It strains credulity to me to think that removing one out of every 20 cars is going to appreciably cut commute time for the average driver,” he said.

While he said he’s open-minded about the details, Waltz said he won’t back any legislation that excludes money for road building.

“I would not only be a vocal opponent, many of my colleagues would feel the same way,” he said.

Waltz admits that throwing road money into a mass-transit plan is unusual, but he thinks it’s a necessary selling point for any local tax increase. The suburban counties could use the money according to their needs, whether that’s north-south roads in Hamilton County or an improved east-west corridor in Johnson County, he said.

Indy Connect proponents aren’t fazed by the competing plan, which Waltz has pitched in meetings with Marion and Hamilton county legislators, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and business leaders.

Apart from the road-widening, Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said he didn’t see anything in Waltz’s plan that wasn’t contemplated in the Indy Connect bill, which he wrote.

The Indy Connect plan counts on other agencies to deal with road and vehicle-traffic needs, said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority. If legislators want to discuss new funding mechanisms for those needs as well, he said, “That’s an interesting policy discussion.”

As for Waltz’s insistence on road funding, Bingaman said, “That’s good that he’s supportive and wants to get something done.”

The question of how to pay for any mass transit plan could easily consume most of the 16-member committee’s time between August and December, when it is set to wrap up its work.

“This is all about money,” Miller said. “If the city didn’t want the state to authorize raising taxes, this issue wouldn’t be before the General Assembly.”

Miller said multiple options, including sales tax and some kind of corporate tax, will be on the table. Some Marion County legislators fear an income-tax hike would put an undue burden on residents who don’t need mass transit, potentially driving them into the suburbs.

Two study committee members, Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, were vocal skeptics of the Indy Connect financing plan.

“I expect those two to be very engaged in the funding [discussion],” Miller said.•

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