Transit advocates push to increase state funding

A Republican from West Lafayette wants to see a full debate on Indiana’s funding of public transit—an amount advocates complain isn’t keeping up with costs.

Rep. Randy Truitt filed a bill that would provide about $20 million more a year than Gov. Mike Pence offered in his state budget proposal for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. A member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Truitt could work to amend the budget bill, House Bill 1001, but he said he filed a separate bill on the Public Mass Transportation Fund so it would get a full committee hearing.

“I want to push the dialogue, push the debate, get it out in the open,” Truitt said.

Truitt’s bill, House Bill 1215, would put $60 million into the PMTF in each of the next two fiscal years. That’s about 45 percent more than the $41.3 million in the governor’s proposal, which is reflected in the House budget bill.

The money is divided among 65 bus systems and Indiana’s one commuter-rail line, the South Shore Line, which runs from South Bend to Chicago. The PMTF has been funded at about the same level since 2008, Truitt said. Since then, he’s heard requests from hospitals, hotels and other businesses for expanded routes and more frequent service.

Ridership is increasing for IndyGo and other systems across the state, but so are their costs, especially for personnel, said Mark Fisher, vice president of government affairs at the Indy Chamber and an IndyGo board member. Increased funding to the PMTF is one of the Indy Chamber’s priorities for the 2015 legislative session, he said.

IndyGo on Tuesday announced that system ridership hit a 23-year peak of 10.29 million passenger trips in 2014.

Transit agencies are trying to be "creative and efficient," Fisher said, but they’ve also been hit by a decrease in property-tax revenue.

Karl Browning, the commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation, has said in the past that his primary concern is maintaining roads and bridges, but Fisher said the PMTF doesn’t compete directly with road money, which is mainly funded through sales tax on gasoline. Until 2011, the PMTF received a set portion of state sales tax revenue. Now it’s a line item in the state’s general fund.

“We would hope the road builders would not see this as competing for their funds,” Fisher said.

The bus systems compete within their peer groups for grants from the Indiana Department of Transportation. The grants are based on three performance measures—total passengers, vehicle miles and local income—all relative to operating expenses.

Among large urban bus systems, IndyGo received the largest share from the PMTF in 2014, $10.4 million. West Lafayette received the second-largest amount, $4.3 million.

Kim Irwin, director of the Indiana Citizens Alliance for Transit, said her group will be reminding lawmakers that transit systems are also in rural areas and help senior citizens reach medical appointments and disabled people get to jobs.

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