When Indyconnect unveiled its first proposal for a long range transit plan for the Indianapolis region (February 2010), many people were happy about what had been included in the plan.Transit backers were thrilled that light rail transit was planned along Washington Street from the airport to the east side. Finally, vocal advocates (myself included) had something to look forward in terms of getting real urban rail here in Indianapolis. This plan was rolled out to the public and while many in Indy wanted to see more light rail in the form of Broad Ripple to Downtown, or some sort of route that mixed with Mass Ave and Fountain Square, it represented a step in the right direction; a significant step towards lowering overheads on current buses, increasing bus coverage and speeding it up along key corridors. The addition of 2 commuter rail lines was also included. It also unhappily painted a lot of new expanded roads on the map. This plan was shopped to the public for 9 months after which significant citizen input was collected.
Then, the second round of Indyconnect was planned and public meetings held. These started in November 2010. By then, a better fiscal picture had come into focus. The Indyconnect planners studied the potential revenue inputs, weighed them against a number of possible tax increase scenarios and finally, offered a recommendation based upon those fiscal constraints combined with public input and advanced planner knowledge of potential transit services. The map that was released was vastly changed from the prior version. Portions of bus routes classified as “Express” in the February report had been converted to a form of “Bus Rapid Transit” along portions of their corridor; while still retaining some express routes on other corridors. BRT’s inclusion was a large change and provided some initial excitement that was later tempered by the news that this would not be dedicated guide-way BRT. Furthermore, and by far the biggest omission which stood out like a sore thumb to residents of Indianapolis was the elimination of light rail along Washington Street from the airport to the east side in the first 25 years of the plan. The plan introduces BRT along Washington Street in an early phase and then converts to LRT beyond the 25 year time horizon of the plan. Indeed, light rail had been removed from the 25 year plan altogether in what organizers chalked up as simply not enough money. To add insult to injury, the 2 proposed commuter lines had been significantly lengthened from the plan’s first version.
How was this allowed to happen? How could months of input and a loud voice (at least from urbanist’s perspectives) about adding MORE light rail for Indianapolis turn into no light rail at all? The answer lies within the numbers that the “business community (or private sector)” used to determine what the fiscal realities for this plan could be. Initially, a sales tax had been discussed (click link to open task force report). The prior plan would have taken somewhere between $10-$15 a month per household for those counties who opted into the plan based on voter referendum. State legislators have been cool on this plan altogether unfortunately, but have also bristled at the idea of a sales tax to cover expenses for the plan. Planners have given more attention to income tax as a primary alternative, without eliminating tax increment finance (TIF) districts and public private partnerships (PPP) as contributing sources of revenue and expedited implementation.
Furthermore, a recent event held by IndyHUB called, “Indy Talks, Leaders Listen” exposed a rough ballpark figure. Ron Gifford, the new leader of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, asked attendees of the Mass Transit breakout what they would like to see. Light rail from downtown to Carmel? Light rail from the airport to the east side? Bus rapid transit? Commuter rail? Obviously, most in the room raised their hand as willing to pay for this. The other shoe dropped when Mr. Gifford stated that all of that included into a 25 year plan, could require a 0.7% annual income tax. (or $350 annual in taxes on $50,000 salary).
The current Indyconnect long range plan, if given the chance to be adopted, could be funded using a 0.3% income tax increase; and thus the reason why light rail was cut from the initial plan.
MPO Transit Vision Document
Another small tidbit of knowledge that is worth knowing is that while the final adopted map (2nd map in post) is included in the MPO’s Long Range Transit Vision Document, it was not always so. Being the sleuth that I am, I had checked in on this document early on and a different version of the “transit vision” map was in it. Included on the map (3rd map in post) in that version was more BRT for downtown, more potential light rail (Broad Ripple to University of Indy via DT) as well as a longer envisioned Washington Street route and additional future bus routes. I was told that the reason this was removed from the current vision document was its non-approval by policy makers. However, it DOES demonstrate that the heads of Indyconnect heard what we were saying and at least drew the lines on the map. Indeed, if you read the entire document, it spells out what the future could look in Indianapolis. The proposed BRT lines being switched to light rail or streetcar and additional commuter rail lines being built.
So where do we go from here? Many people are obviously unhappy that the plan was stripped down notwithstanding the fact that we have not been given an opportunity to vote on it. First off, we as citizens need to urge our lawmakers at the state level to get on board with allowing a tax referendum to occur for this plan. There are currently grassroots efforts underway among local transit advocates to adopt a resolution of support to present to lawmakers in the 2011 legislative session. Urban Indy was the first organization to adopt the resolution (click to open .pdf) and the effort is currently building steam with many noteable organizations signing on to support a referendum to voters in 2012. Getting a referendum is the largest hurdle of them all at this point in time. Second, how do we lobby for more funding to make the longer view parts of the MPO vision document happen sooner? How do we get the Indyconnect planners to bump that 0.3% figure up to 0.5% or more so that practical light rail or streetcars for Indy are a potential reality in our lifetime?
I ask you, our readers, is an income tax who’s monthly amount is equal to what a half a tank of gasoline costs, worth the potential transportation impact?
For my part, I am all in.