Council to start debate over transit tax-hike referendum

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The debate over whether Indianapolis residents should be able to vote this November on an income tax increase to pay for improved public transportation will soon heat up at the Indianapolis City-County Council.

The council on Monday will introduce a proposal that authorizes a referendum—specifically, a 0.25 percent income tax increase—on the ballot this fall to pay for the upgrades, a measure that so far seems to have broad support in the legislative body.

The tax increase would help fund the IndyGo Marion County Transit Plan, which includes extended service hours, shorter wait times, and the creation of three bus rapid transit lines.

“I hope, after all the discussion, that this is something people can really rally behind,” said Republican Councilor Jeff Miller. “We hope it sends a message that we feel it’s really important that we allow the public to have this vote.”

Miller, who represents part of downtown and some south-side neighborhoods, said he believes there is strong support for the proposal in the 25-member council. The proposal has 16 sponsors.

But the measure’s smooth passage isn’t guaranteed. The Rules and Public Policy Committee is slated to vote on the measure April 26, then it will need to pass the full council.

Opposition to the Red Line bus rapid transit line has mounted in recent months, with a petition against the plan gaining about 375 signatures. Plans call for the entire Red Line to run from Westfield to Greenwood at a projected cost of $170 million to $200 million.

In Marion County, the first 13-mile phase, which would run from 66th Street in Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis, is expected to cost $96 million to build and another $6 million annually to operate. Construction is expected to start in spring 2017, with routes open for service in fall 2018.

IndyGo hopes to partially pay for the Marion County portion through federal funding. It is in line to receive a $75 million federal grant through the Small Starts program, although that funding isn't definite.

Some councilors, including Republican Christine Scales, are on the fence about the Red Line plan.

Scales, who represents parts of the north side, said her district is “very divided” over the issue, and that she personally has concerns with the proposal.

“But I heard consistently from them that they wanted a referendum,” Scales said, so she will likely vote in favor of adding the question to the ballot.

Scales said she is concerned that IndyGo has focused on funding and building the Red Line bus rapid transit system first. She said infrastructure and transit is more sorely needed in some of the city’s more struggling corridors.

“Why are we putting the very first line of the new big plan where we have $400,000-plus homes, trendy retail and restaurants that people can go to with their excess money?” Scales said. “I feel people who are not of influence or money are once again being pushed to the side. It is now choice versus necessity.”

If the measure passes, Council President Maggie Lewis, a Democrat, said voters will have the ultimate choice—with their votes—over whether to approve the tax increase.
“There still are a lot of questions that need to be hashed out,” Lewis said. “But there are many of us that feel this issue is important enough to allow the community to say yes or no.”
The proposal will be discussed at council meetings on April 4 and April 13.

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