Saturday, March 1, 2014

What's so hard about mass transit?

Posted By on Sat, Mar 1, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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Why is this so hard?

That's the question anyone who longs for better mass transit - no, make that decent mass transit - in central Indiana must be asking in light of the latest news out of the Statehouse.

It used to be that the state's lawfakers kept getting in the way of transit legislation because they didn't want people in Marion and surrounding counties to vote on our willingness to raise taxes. The issue was local control.

Then the issue became the transit system's design. Remember: whatever might or might not happen would still be subject to a public referendum on whether or not to raise the taxes necessary to pay for most of this project. But this didn't keep the lawfakers from messing with whether or not a proposed system should have a light rail component.

I've been writing about this subject for years. Personally, I think light rail has been a huge distraction and would be an insupportable expense. Other cities, Bogota, for example, have demonstrated that you can build a sophisticated transit system around buses in less time and for a fraction of the expense of light rail.

In a community as allergic to taxes as ours is, containing costs is important. But just as important will be the ability to get a new, greatly improved system up and running as quickly as possible. People should be able to experience the benefits of their transit investment sooner rather than later. Light rail's boondoggle quotient is simply too high.

So while I found the state senate's desire to cut light rail out of the transit package presumptuous - we still don't know whether the public will vote to fund this thing - it actually served the purpose of streamlining that package in a way that could soften the blow to taxpayers.

This makes the House of Representatives' latest move, putting light rail back in the bill, as well as removing a Senate-backed provision for a corporate income or employment tax, mind-boggling. Instead of moving the legislation forward, the House action appears to have stalled it. "Light rail was an issue with a lot of legislators early in the process, and I think this is going to have to be something we go back and revisit, " said Sen. Patricia Miller (R-Indianapolis). "I think this changes the landscape."

One more time: We are talking about something that will still have to pass muster with taxpayers. If, that is, the taxpayers are ever given the chance to have their say.

Making law has been famously likened to making sausage. The end-product may be delicious, but you'd hate to see what goes into it. That's an understatement in this case. In the end, though, you have to wonder why so many of our legislators are so afraid of what the people of central Indiana might (or might not) want when it comes to public transportation. Why is this so hard?

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