Hot-Button Issues: Under the Bus

Will Central Indiana’s mass-transit overhaul finally go somewhere?

Editor’s Note: From gay marriage to Glenda Ritz, Obamacare to Sunday booze, we’re presenting 10 topics that Hoosiers will be fired up about this year—and what you need to know before jumping into heated cocktail-party discussions. See the full list here.

The Skinny

Since boosters first kicked the tires on the idea of upgrading public transportation in 2008, efforts to get the General Assembly to approve a funding referendum have proceeded in starts and stops. After having a transit bill sent back to committee for further study last year, Indy Connect—a partnership of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, and IndyGo—will try (yet again) to revive the initiative in 2014 with its 10-year, $1.3 billion plan for expanded bus routes and high-speed lines to the suburbs with something called “bus rapid transit vehicles,” which the group describes as “essentially light rail without the tracks.” Indy Connect hopes to persuade state lawmakers to put the matter of funding to a referendum for voters in Central Indiana counties.

Hot-Button Issuse: Under the BusGreen Light

Supporters contend that mass transit reduces traffic congestion and pollution, and local mayors, notably Greg Ballard of Indianapolis and Jim Brainard of Carmel, have come on board, asserting that a better system will keep Indy on pace with competing cities.

Red Light

Fiscal conservatives have called Indy Connect’s plan a “boondoggle” and balked at the notion of raising taxes (an estimated $15 per month per household) to do so, maintaining that rider fares would cover only a small percentage of the operating costs, leaving everyone else to subsidize the system. “It’s always fun to talk about something new,” said Senator Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, as quoted in The Statehouse File. “It’s a lot harder to come up with how to pay for it.”

The Players

Ron Gifford of Indy Connect, the campaign driving lobbying efforts for mass transit … Reps. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, and Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, his allies in the Assembly … Don Bauder of the Tea Party of Hamilton County, who has said taxpayers are “tapped out,” and Kenley, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who seems to agree … Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, of the Central Indiana Transit Study Committee, which approved a plan last fall to allow counties to raise revenue, and Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, who joined her in introducing a bill earlier this month.

   Luke Kenley         Patricia Miller         Ron Gifford

Players: (l-r) Kenley, Miller, Gifford

When It Will Go Down

Legislation based on the study committee’s work was introduced in both the House and Senate in January, which promises to fuel debate as the session grinds on. Passage of a referendum would shift the issue to Central Indiana voting booths in November.

The Upper Hand

Parsimonious taxpayers content to be in the driver’s seat. Even after Indy Connect floated a streamlined—and cheaper—plan ahead of last year’s session, legislators sent the issue back to committee instead of voting on a referendum. With another derailment this year, mass transit might become a dead issue for the foreseeable future.

Mixed Signals

Even Indy Connect’s paid cheerleader seems ambivalent. “Anyone who says transit will solve everything is selling you a bill of goods,” Gifford told NUVO. “To say that a good transit system isn’t required to build healthier communities … is also selling a bill of goods.”

Follow Along

@IndyConnect / @IndianaAFP / @ShellaWISH / @Hoosierchild

A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue. Reporting by IM writer-at-large Michael Rubino.