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Going to the Statehouse
The start of a new legislative session at the Indiana Statehouse is an intense time for Irwin and her coalition partners. There are at least three major agenda items they plan on promoting between now and next spring.
Their first goal is to try and take Complete Streets statewide. The Indiana Department of Transportation opposes the idea of making the Indianapolis ordinance applicable from Evansville to Gary, claiming other towns and cities are either already employing Complete Streets ideas or that it's simply not necessary. Irwin disagrees. "We have a number of examples from communities where not having a statewide Complete Streets policy has really detracted from projects that have been done."
She points to cases where state highways have been run through small towns in places that were never intended to handle heavy rates of traffic at higher speeds. Perhaps an even bigger issue is that, without Complete Streets, planners may not be encouraged to think holistically when it comes to solving infrastructure problems. "This stuff forces the powers-that-be, leadership, as well as day-to-day staff, to do things differently than they've been doing them for decades. It's not that there's a tremendous cost to that. Sometimes the projects end up being cheaper. It just requires thinking harder - and differently."
Irwin contends that Complete Streets-thinking tends to maximize the value of public infrastructure spending. Otherwise, she says, "We will invest millions of dollars in projects that don't meet the needs of the people who use them. People may not know a term like Complete Streets, but they know what their neighbors need."
Another goal for the 2013 legislative session is persuading lawmakers to allow citizens in Central Indiana to vote on whether or not we are willing to absorb a tax increase to pay for an improved public transit system.
Under the Indy Connect Now proposal, Marion and Hamilton counties would undertake a 10-year, $1.3 billion program to dramatically increase bus service and construct a light rail line between Noblesville and downtown. But before that can happen, citizens must express their willingness to accept a 0.3 percent increase to the local income tax through a referendum.
Holding such a referendum drew widespread support in the community, with Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership getting on board. But, last January, members of the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee torpedoed the idea.
Bringing the idea of a tax increase before the voters is crucial if the Indianapolis metro area is to ever have an up-to-date transit system. Irwin sees the issue as one of local control, whether or not the people in our community will be permitted to vote yes or no on an issue that affects us directly. She is "cautiously optimistic" about the referendum's chances this time around.
"No other transportation project in the state has withstood the scrutiny and analysis and the level of scenario planning and detailed economic forecasting that this has. At a certain point, the objections don't make sense any more."
Irwin recognizes that asking people to call or email their state legislators isn't that sexy. In this case, though, she says it is the most important thing anyone who wants to vote on transit in Central Indiana can do. The people, she believes, are ahead of their legislators on this issue. It is vital you let your state rep or senator know how you feel. Last but not least, Irwin and the Health by Design coalition are hoping to right what they see as a legislative wrong perpetrated in the 2011 session.
For 30 years, the budgets of Indiana's 65 regional transit agencies were linked to the state's sales tax. But in 2011, the state legislature decoupled transit funding from the sales tax, creating what Irwin calls "a huge policy change with profound implications." The decoupling has meant that transit now has to fight with every other funding demand for its own line item in the state budget. Now, says Irwin, it is not only important to battle to keep the amount of transit's funding intact, but to recouple transit to its previous percentage of the sales tax.
Dealing with public health in Indiana can feel like an uphill climb. A recent study by the United Health Foundation ranked the Hoosier state 41st in the nation, citing our persistently high smoking and obesity rates, lack of exercise and lack of funding for public health. We spend $44 per person, placing Indiana 47th in the country. Irwin, however, seems energized by the challenge.
In part, her optimism comes from the coalition represented by Health by Design. "It's like having 200 colleagues!"
But Irwin draws her greatest inspiration from her fellow citizens. "I've heard the real stories. I've talked to the people who can't get to work because they don't have a good transportation option. I like to think - or I hope - that I'm always trying to communicate their perspective.
"It makes it personal."
To learn more about Health by Design, go to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 317-352-3844.
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