Last night, the Indiana General Assembly closed the 2014 session by passing SB176, otherwise known as the central Indiana mass transit bill. After being scaled back, stripped, and amended here and there, an effort three years in the making now heads to Governor Pence for final approval before being placed on the ballot this fall for local voter approval. Voters will finally have the option of approving an income tax increase, of anywhere between 0.1 and 0.25 percent, to help cover the operating costs of expanded transit in their counties. The following counties are eligible for participation under this bill: Delaware, Hamilton, Hancock, Johnson, Madison, and Marion counties. Fares must cover at least 25% of the operating costs. Once the bill is signed off on by the governor, transit planners will have their work cut out for them in the months ahead to convince people that this is the next best step the metro area can take right now in improving mass transportation.
In order to find a compromise between Senate and House leaders, certain controversial aspects of the bill were removed. One area of controversy was an amendment that would have created a tax on corporations to cover 10% of operating costs. That provision was amended out and replaced with a requirement that revenue generated from sources other than taxes and fares “must equal at least 10% of the local option income tax revenue and cover at least 10% of operating costs” (pg. 34). The fact that a corporation tax was even suggested seems puzzling due to Governor Pence’s efforts this session to decrease as much of the business tax as possible. In other news, the general assembly did sign off on a bill that cuts Indiana’s corporate and financial institution tax rates and creates an opening for the business personal property tax rate to be decreased even more.
The most controversial portion of the transit bill prohibits an eligible county from using funds to create a “light rail project” (pg. 36). Light rail, as defined in SB176 and by the American Public Transportation Association, is “a mode of transit service on fixed rails in right-of-way that is often separated from other traffic for part or much of the way, and may have either high platform loading or low level boarding using steps”. This seems very contradictory due to the fact that the bill states that a county may establish the type of transportation it sees fit. Yet, an entire mode of transportation has been prohibited. Once again the state officials seem to be acting in a manner that is significantly behind the times; a ‘father knows best’ type of way with state representatives citing their worry on the taxpayers possibly having to foot the bill for rail transit that may not meet expectations. Upon further research however, it appears that Indiana is not the first state to have such a ban. In 1991, the then Los Angeles County Transportation Commission purchased an abandoned commercial rail line in hopes of expanding mass transit to the San Fernando Valley. However, due to opposition, the California legislature passed a bill which “prohibited the construction of any above-ground rail transit project” along the corridor. LA’s metropolitan transit authority instead moved forward with the construction of a bus rapid transit (BRT) route which is now known as the Orange Line. The line was completed in 2005 and since then has dramatically exceeded expectations. Initially projected at 16,000 riders per weekday, in 2012 the line averaged 31,787 riders daily. With no feasible way of expanding capacity along the BRT route, LA city council leaders are now taking steps to repeal the 1991 law and hopefully bring light rail transit to the Orange Line. One councilmember stated, “The orange line right of way was once rail and should be rail again” (Clough, 2013).
Sound familiar? In the Indy Connect plan, and in accordance with SB176, the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority corridor, or Green Line, will undergo the same transformation from rail to bus way as the Los Angeles Orange Line did. Will ridership expectations exceed those projected by transit planners? Will we have to wait 20 years before the light rail ban is repealed? Well, only time will tell. However, one might wonder how much thought went into creating a provision like this in the first place.
For transit supporters this bill has been a long time coming. Though the bill may not be perfect, it at least gives metro area counties or townships (should an eligible county as a whole opt out) the ability, somewhat, to enhance or create a transit system that fits their needs. With gas prices fluctuating, Indy Go ridership reaching record levels and the efforts of the MPO, Downtown Indy Inc., and local mayors citing infrastructure improvements as a necessity to creating vibrant and livable communities, the Indiana Legislature has finally taken a necessary step in passing this bill.
Conference Committee Report Digest for ESB 176 http://iga.in.gov/static-documents/4/0/c/d/40cda402/SB0176.07.COMH.CCH001.pdf
Featured Image. Central Indiana Transit Plan – Long range map. Retrieved from www.indyconnect.org
Clough, Craig. (Oct. 2013). City council supports building light rail on orange line bus route. Sherman Oaks Patch. Retrieved from http://shermanoaks.patch.com/groups/politics-and-elections/p/city-council-supports-building-light-rail-on-orange-line-bus-route
2014 Session concludes. A look at key issues. Retrieved from http://insendems.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/2014-session-concludes-a-look-at-key-issues/#masstrans