Mass-transit plan draws critics in state hearing

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Tea party activists who are among the harshest critics of a proposal to boost central Indiana's mass transit offerings told a legislative committee Thursday they oppose any tax increases to pay for expanding local bus service or a possible light rail line in the heavily populated region.

Two suburban Indianapolis business officials, meanwhile, told the panel that expanding mass transit would make the region more attractive to young professionals and help spur development.

In April, Indiana lawmakers delayed action on a bill that would have allowed voters in 10 central Indiana counties to decide whether to increase local income taxes to fund the proposed $1.3 billion plan. The Legislature instead turned the issue over to a committee to study and report back its findings.

Don Bauder, the president of the Tea Party of Hamilton County, told that committee that central Indiana's tax burden is already too high and another tax increase isn't wanted.

"We are tapped out," he told the panel. "That $1.3 billion isn't available. That's my money — that's your money."

Bauder also said private enterprise, not taxpayers, should pay for any mass transit expansion and that the Indianapolis area's existing bus services hasn't stifled its economic development.

Bill Schneider, a former Indianapolis City-County Council member who's now a tea party activist, said many of the buses on Indianapolis' current IndyGo bus line are little-used and the focus needs to be on improving those lines to boost ridership. He also said the Indianapolis metropolitan area can't support the type of light rail system found in Chicago, New York, Cleveland and other cities.

"The city and the counties around us have not grown to that extent," Schneider said.

Mo Merhoff, president of the Carmel Chamber of Commerce, told the panel that improving mass transit to get people to and from work, shopping centers and entertainment venues is what other big metropolitan areas are moving toward.

"Why do we presume that none of these national trends affect central Indiana? Why do we presume that none of these indicators pertain to us?" she asked. "The amenities that attract businesses and jobs matter, and transit is simply increasingly one of those components."

Christian Maslowski, president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, said mass transit spurs development and attracts the type of young professionals businesses are eager to hire.

"It's no longer enough just to create the economic climate to attract new businesses. We must also create a place where top talent wants to live," he said.

Members of the Central Indiana Transit Study Committee have already heard from mayors, transportation officials and others who support expanding mass transit. The panel still must vote on its recommendations and send them to the full General Assembly before Dec. 15. The next legislative session begins in January.

The panel's chair, Sen. Pat Miller, said the proposal for a light rail line has generated significant "pushback" by the public and lawmakers, but expanding bus services has garnered more support.

Miller, R-Indianapolis, said she does not like the idea of raising local income taxes to pay for mass transit. She said the panel would consider the idea of increasing corporate taxes and other funding options.

"I'm not enthralled with the idea of increasing taxes to fund transportation, so we've got to look for other sources," she said.

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