Ehren Bingaman likes to tell a story about something that happened to him last winter. Bingaman, who happens to be executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, was driving his car on west Washington Street, near the old Central State hospital, when he hit a pothole that blew his tire and left him stranded by the side of the road. As is typical in situations involving potholes, cold weather, slush and disabled vehicles, a series of misadventures ensued.
Bingaman appears to be a fairly good-natured guy who laughs easily. But on this day, by his own account, he was furious. Finally, though, he managed to collect himself. When he did, he realized that what was making him angry wasn’t the pothole or his bad luck. It was the fact that, to get around Indianapolis, he had no choice but to drive a car.
Bingaman is a student of history. He understands that, at one time, the availability of automobiles and the romance of the open road rhymed with most Americans’ idea of independence. He also thinks that times have changed: “I don’t want to have to take every trip in my car — that’s not freedom,” he says.
At the moment, Bingaman is helping to lead the initiative to create the region’s first rapid rail corridor between Noblesville and downtown. This means that his days and evenings are spent talking with people about what a better public transit system could mean for our metropolitan area. Bingaman is encouraged by what he sees as a change in the nature of the discussions he’s having. “Maybe we’ve crossed that gap of whether we need it or not,” he says, adding, “We’re talking about details now.”
Bingaman emphasizes that this corridor is just the first step in what needs to be a process encompassing the entire region, as well as a variety of forms of public transportation. He stresses that our community’s ability to compete with other cities is on the line. Indianapolis, he reckons, is between 20 and 30 years behind its peer cities in terms of public transportation development.
This should be a great time to be a public transit advocate. The price of a gallon of gas is over $4 and probably going higher. The need to improve our air quality and put the brakes on climate change is gaining widespread acceptance. Energy independence, public health and economic development are all demonstrably enhanced by strong systems of trains and buses.
But upfront costs are daunting, especially in a region that’s still feeling the sting of recent property tax increases. And the process of building public consensus for the project, and then working through layers of regulatory study and approval, is time-consuming. If funding is forthcoming and all the regulatory stars align perfectly, Bingaman estimates that it’s “conceivable” the corridor between Noblesville and downtown could be running by 2012. No wonder he says his work “requires marathon runners, not sprinters.”
There are three sources of funding for public transit in Indiana. The state apportions a percentage of the state sales tax to public systems in various localities, which, in turn, use property taxes. Then there is federal funding. But Central Indiana has paid so little attention to public transit over the past 50 years or so that, today, Bingaman estimates there are at least 144 communities ahead of us in pursuit of federal dollars.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to do this on our own, even if it’s just to demonstrate to the feds that we’re serious about this,” Bingaman says.
That’s where leadership comes in. Ehren Bingaman is a knowledgeable, outgoing guy. He’s also a policy wonk. The work he is doing is indispensable, but, in too many ways, it is also virtually invisible. Given the potential benefits of public transit — not to mention the dire consequences of its continued neglect — it’s time to wonder what it will take to get our political leadership, most notably Mayor Ballard, in the mix.
Over the years the city’s political leaders have been content to sit back and let the Ehren Bingamans drive to the public meetings and gather one study after another while the city has fallen farther behind the national public transit curve. Our mayor needs to own this issue and lead the charge to bring Indianapolis into the 21st century — before Ehren Bingaman gets another flat tire.