Mass transit in central Indiana took one-half step forward, and what some might say one-fourth of a step back. The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee approved a bill that would allow for expanded mass transit in Marion, Hamilton, Johnson, Delaware, Madison, and now Hancock counties. The funding structure proposed by last year’s Summer Transit Study Committee is what helped the bill get passed this time. Voters in each county would have to approve an income tax increase of anywhere from 0.1 to 0.25 of a percent increase, which would fund 65 percent of the operating costs. Corporations would have to pay 10 percent of the cost and fares would have to cover 25 percent of the operating costs. This tiered financial structure requires that all parties involved take responsibility by investing in a system that those same parties will benefit from. The portion of the amended proposed bill that seems slightly puzzling is that light rail is banned and state funds may not be used for any expansion.
The opposition to light rail is puzzling because one would think that if voters are able to decide whether or not to raise their income taxes, surely they are able to decide what mode of transit best suits their needs. Although the decision about what type of transit system to build is to be left to each county, one type of transit has already been banned. Why the war against rail transit? After all, it’s not too foreign of a concept here. Two and a half weeks out of the year rail transit is used to transport passengers from Fishers to the Indiana State Fairgrounds multiple times per day. Many would argue that rail transit is too expensive and there isn’t a dense enough population to support it here in central Indiana. However, other cities around the U.S. with populations similar to those here in the Indianapolis metropolitan area have seen rail transit work and reaped the development benefits from it. The line proposed by Indy Connect initially to be serviced by light rail is along that same fair train route mentioned earlier. The green line will go between 176th street in Noblesville to downtown Indianapolis via Fishers and various Indy neighborhoods. Below is a comparison of Hamilton County with other suburban counties with rail transit.
|County||Transit Authority||Line name||Areas Served||Population of Area Served**||Total County Population**||Investment Cost/Length|
|Hamilton County, IN||CIRTA||Green Line*||NoblesvilleFishers||51,96976,794||274,569||$483 million/23 miles***|
|Denton County, TX||DCTD||A-Train||DentonLewisville||113,38377,737||662,614||$325 million/21 miles|
|Wilson County, TN||Music City Star||LebanonMt. Juliet||26,19023,777||49,967||$41 million/32 miles|
|Weber County, UT||UTA||FrontRunner (north)||Pleasant ViewOgdenRoy
|231,236||$180 million/21.5 miles****|
*Line still being proposed, **Population as of 2010 census, ***Estimated cost, ****Based on entire FrontRunner amounts of $360 million/43 miles
Each of the latter three suburban counties has a low population density similar to that of Hamilton County. Both Nashville and Salt Lake City, the major cities in which the Music City Star and FrontRunner North terminate, have populations of 626,681 and 189,314 respectively. Both cities have a population density of 1,200 and 1,666 respectively. Given, the latter three lines have been classified as commuter rail as opposed to light rail, each line was built on an existing rail right of way and each makes at least one stop in the major city in which they terminate.
For these counties and the major metropolitan cities to which they are connected, citizens were allowed to vote on a tax increase of some sort, be it sales or income, and developments continued from there. Indiana state legislators have told central Indiana citizens that no matter what, their tax dollars won’t be used for light rail, not even if they wanted it. In these efforts, similar to parents telling their children what they can and cannot buy, legislators did not give a reason why. Sure, some said it will give the project a better chance to succeed, and others said the cost would be entirely too much. Indy Connect planners have said in meetings that the estimated cost of the green line is a high end estimate, and the amount could be significantly lower than that in the end. Many rail plans have been completed under budget, the FrontRunner project being one of them, which was estimated to cost $550 million.
Regarding funding, one important factor to remember is that amount of the initial investment costs to be covered by the Federal Transit Administration is yet to be determined. The FTA’s New Starts program helps funds new and existing transit projects including commuter, light, and heavy rail, as well as bus rapid transit, streetcars, and ferries. Therefore, people must understand that the local portion of funding can’t be based off of the initial estimated cost alone, as federal funding will help subsidize that amount as well.
Indy Connect planners originally stated that the expansion would be funded by federal, state, and local dollars. Well the federal part is still on board, as the FTA has already helped fund the initial studies. The local part has not been given the chance to vote yet, but when they do, they know rail transit won’t be an option. The state, however, will not be funding any of this. Should transit supports be upset? Well, the same thing happened in Georgia, and to date Atlanta’s MARTA is the largest mass transit system in the U.S. not to receive state funding for operational expenses. In spite of a budget crisis 4 years ago, it still maintains a high ridership of 227,300 rail passengers per day. If the state of Indiana doesn’t want any funding to go to mass transit in the Indy-metro area, that’s fine. However, why should funding go to mass transit in other areas of the state? Currently, the Public Mass Transportation Fund, the Commuter Rail Service Fund, and the Electric Rail Service Fund are dedicated funding programs. The PMTF comes from 0.67 of one percent and the CRSF comes from 0.123 of one percent of sales and use taxes collected statewide. The only district eligible to receive the ERSF and the CRSF is the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, operator of the South Shore Line. The line also receives 12.34% of the total PMTF amount available annually. Even with BRT, the expansion would still qualify for the PMTF under the purpose for which the fund was created. Perhaps, when the Senate committee said “no state funding”, they forgot about these sources and therefore didn’t really mean what they said. If that is the case, hopefully more time won’t be taken from pushing this measure forward by stalling it in another committee just to correct the financial jargon. However, if that were to happen, the train would at least be upgraded from going nowhere to just being delayed.