Mass transit bill hits roadblock 

Member of Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee listening to testimony from Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, who flew in from Oregon to testify against HR 1011. - REBECCA TOWNSEND
  • Member of Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee listening to testimony from Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, who flew in from Oregon to testify against HR 1011.
  • Rebecca Townsend

Technically, the mass transit bill is not dead. It just does not look anything like it did at the beginning of this week, thanks to an amendment passed unanimously out of the Indiana Senate's Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee.

With just one amendment, the committee, chaired by Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, stripped all of the language in the mass transit bill, H.R. 1011, and replaced it with verbiage that sends the issue to a study committee mandated to report back its findings by the year's end. The move, lawmakers said, still allows time for a referendum vote to take place in 2014. Still, it pushes the General Assembly's decision on whether to pass the bill into next year's session.

"I don't think what you're seeing here is somebody trying to drive a stake through the heart of mass transit, as a whole; it's getting comfortable that each element of the proposal has been vetted to the satisfaction of the legislature," Hershman told NUVO following the hearing.

click to enlarge Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, chaired Tuesday's committee meeting. - REBECCA TOWNSEND
  • Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, chaired Tuesday's committee meeting.
  • Rebecca Townsend

Questions the senator said he has heard from his colleagues pertain to project details, as well as to the appropriate funding mechanisms and sources.

Hershman then referenced testimony from transit advocates that a final feasibility study for a commuter rail line — that might be included in the proposed upgrades to Marion County's transit system — would not be complete until next March, ahead of a proposed referendum vote in the fall of 2014.

"We would literally be authorizing a public question when we don't know what question would be asked," he said. "Would it include a rail component or not? I think that causes some level of discomfort in putting the cart before the horse."

The amendment disappointed the bill's advocates, but several pointed out that opportunities for compromise still exist if the bill is taken up on the Senate floor, and, if it passes the Senate, in a conference committee between the two legislative chambers.

The bill's author, Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, testified, "I am not thrilled with the amendment, but I'd rather have a live bill than a dead bill."

Two proponents, one who flew in from Oregon on behalf of the Cato Institute, testified against the bill. On the flip side, many proponents advocated for expanded mass transit and emphasized frustration with years of study and discussion — and a lack of action.

The Central Indiana Corporate Partnership's Ron Gifford, a founding member of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, said that, after several years of study, Indianapolis business leaders feel a "sense of urgency" to improve the city's transit system.

Following the hearing, advocates echoed that theme.

"The truth is that we have been studying transit in Central Indiana since the '70s," said Kim Irwin, the executive director of the Alliance for Health Promotion, which coordinates the Citizens' Alliance for Transit. "We've spent tens of millions of dollars studying transit — it isn't the fiscally conservative position to do it again."

The Hoosier Environmental Council's Tim Maloney, who testified to the environmental and energy-saving benefits of expanded mass transit options, said the merit of the bill before amended was that it gave the voters the say in whether they wanted mass transit — and if they wanted to fund it.

"What's more democratic than that?" he asked.

The amendment approved Tuesday reads as follows:

PROPOSED COMMITTEE AMENDMENT TO HB 1011. Provides that a political subdivision may not enter into an interlocal cooperation agreement with another political subdivision to establish a joint district or entity to provide public transportation services. Provides that a county or municipality may not establish a new regional transportation authority or become a member of an existing regional transportation authority. Establishes the central Indiana transit study committee. Requires the committee to report to the legislative council before December 15, 2013, concerning specified transportation issues. Deletes the existing provisions in the bill.

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