Today, I had the luck of squeezing my way into the listening session for the transportation surface bill in Indianapolis. I say luck because the seats were spoken for 4 days ago. I stood the entire time, and had to hang around after a baliff told the couple dozen people standing outside to please leave. Frankly, I was frustrated from the start.A staffer even asked me not to take photos since I wasn’t “with anyone” who had previously obtained permission to take photos.
The meeting started with Chairman Mica talking about how the past couple days of working and generally patting himself and fellow house representatives on their backs. The meeting was informal in nature and was well attended by the usual suspects in the Indianapolis area. Mayor Ballard was seated at the table with Mica as well as Todd Rokita and Congressman Buschon (R-IN); along with INDOT commissioner, an engineer with the I-69 program and some other “connected” folks who represented road building interests. Some MPO officals as well as the CEO of IndyGO, Mike Terry were present with IndyCOG and Health by Design also represented in the crowd observing the session.
The meeting flowed with the panel at the front of the room starting things off. Theh two republican representatives from Indiana attended as well as the commisioner of INDOT. Some other not so familiar faces were seated around the main table as well. As the meeting wore on, it became aparrent that all these gentlemen chosen to testify were connected with “road insterests” a trucking lobbyist spoke. A road builder spoke. A couple of engineers involved with the I-69 project in SW Indiana also attended. Frankly, the only non-road official was our Mayor Greg Ballard who ironically kicked off his turn to speak by promoting the biking and walking programs that he has pushed over the past few years here in Indiananpolis. He told Chairman Mica about his “selling” of the water & sewer utilities to Citizen’s Energy as a way of bonding for infrastructure improvments. To that end, Mica probably took some detailed notes since he made mention of how to take advantage of government owned assests across the country as a means of raising funding for transportation funding.
After Mayor Ballard got done though, the conversation seemed to go downhill; at least from my perspective. Nearly an hour was logged as different special interests from INDOT and their excitment to talk about I-69 to some private operators complaining about the environmental hurdles that infrastructure projects must go through. The conversation even turned pretty dark with Todd Rokita (R-IN) stating that he thought bike and pedestrian projects should not be funded by federal tax dollars. Another panelist said that the hunters & fisherman faced a similar situation in the past and banded together and determined a licensing program to fund projects and hedged the idea that perhaps cyclists should be using this as a means to fund bicycle projects. The low blow of his testimony was that he started his suggestion by stating that he likes cycling as a hobby and his body language suggested he has no interest in funding cycling infrastructure as well. I wasn’t found of his suggestion that cyclists should be segregated like hunters & fisherman. All of the panelists called DOT “the highway department” which as we all know, DOT are multimodal…. or SHOULD be. But I digress.
Surprisingly, Mr. Mica was the most inspiring Republican to speak when he talked about how not expanding freeway rights of way for expansion projects. He cited a project in Florida that took the center safety lanes and converted them to general traffic lanes and noticed a 25% gain in capacity with no noticable rise in accidents. He also pointed out at one point that he comes from business and has done the math on mass transit. This is why he supports spending on it.
It wasnt until an hour and a half into the session that local officials were able to start speaking. Hamilton County commissioner Christine Altman spoke about Indyconnect and the search for funding. She proposed some public-private partnerships as a means of funding to which Chairman Mica seemed to like. At this point, Rokita opened his mouth again and suggestted that the Federal government distribute funds back to the states in the form of block grants so that, “…we can pay for our own projects.” This is where I started thinking about what I would say if given a chance to speak.
Kim Irwin of Health by Design spoke soon after talking about multimodal funding being included in the new bill and pointed out that the states never see alternative modes as a priority and therefore do not devote much spending to this. Many other people spoke after she did including a representative from IndyCOG, a gentlemen representing railroad labor and other concerned citizens. The theme of all these comments were almost advocacy in nature due to the fact that everyone suggested funding be devoted for mass transit, cycling and “livability” programs.
I finally got my chance to speak. I thanked Chairman Mica for visiting Indianapolis. It took me only a minute to launch into why I thought Rokita’s idea of block granting money to the state for handling was a bad idea. I pointed out how everyone on the panel was either a road builder or lobbying for more roads and advocating for non-road projects to be scratched or reduced in the future bill. I also pointed out that everyone preceeding me talked about alternative transport. I also pointed out how our state recently cut transit funding by 18%. At this point, I told him that he could appreciate why I was skeptic about money being left in the hands of the state, as Rokita suggested.
The meeting adjourned shortly after this. One thing was clear though. This was a traditional roads vs all other modes meeting. It embarrased me to see so many road connected people testifiying on behalf of Indiana. Sites like Urban Indy advocate for alternatives in the urban fabric. If we dont speak up for equallity in spending, it is plainly obvious where the money is going to go.