The fight for public transit 

In this week's NUVO, my colleague Anne Laker reported on Indy Connect, the public process aimed at rallying support for a new, improved public transit system in our greater metropolitan area.

A series of public meetings are being held to introduce people to a transit plan, including light rail connecting Washington St. to the airport, commuter service from Fishers to Greenwood on existing tracks, additional and express bus routes, upgrades on major roads and more trails for bikers and walkers.

The plan has the support of a number of the city's corporate big wigs, as well as the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. The business community likes the idea of public transit because they've crunched the numbers: it appears that for every dollar invested in public transit, four dollars are returned to the local economy.

As a bus driver once told me, so far so good.

The plan will be revised over the summer, incorporating input gathered during the public meetings and through Indy Connect's web site. Then it will be time to go to the State Legislature, where permission will be requested to hold a referendum to create "a dedicated transit fund."

Cue the sound of screeching brakes.

Even occasional readers of this column probably know that I am a big fan of public transportation. It enables people to work, shop and have fun without having to own a car (or two), which puts extra money in their pockets and less pollution in the air. Public transit is democratic: it's a collective way of affirming that all people should have a reasonable chance to get wherever they have to go. Finally, it provides all parts of a community with the connectivity necessary for basic economic sustainability and growth. Want to revitalize a destitute neighborhood? Build a transit station there.

We know that a lack of effective public transit is holding Indianapolis back. Our bus fleet ranks last in the nation.

But creating a great plan for public transit here will only set the stage for what is bound to be an awful fight.

As usual, the issue will be taxes. Indianapolis has a terrible public transit system because no one wants to pay for it. We've tried, at various times, to run transit as a for-profit business. It's never worked. So we've opted for a car culture instead.

And while folks in Indy may be waking up to the advantages of public transit, other cities, with well-established systems are hurting. According to a survey done by the American Transportation Association (the same organization, by the way, that provided that $4 return on investment estimate cited above), 80 percent of American transit systems are suffering fare hikes and/or service cuts this year. Last week rallies were held in 11 cities across the country to protest transportation cuts and fare increases.

People everywhere rave about the Washington, D.C. Metro system. But it's $176 million in the hole. Great songs have been written about New York City's subways; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority there is running a $1.2 billion deficit.

The irony is that people all over the country are turning to public transit more and more. We don't just want this, our wallets and the environment tell us we need it. But the fact remains that ticket buyers account for only about one-fifth of revenue for any given transit system.

That's a statistic you can bet will come up once Indy Connect's plan reaches the Statehouse. It doesn't help matters that this will be happening in the wake of a public referendum on whether we should write property tax caps into the state constitution. Guess where IndyGo gets most of its funding? Yep, just like the library system and waste disposal – it's the property tax.

So odds are the funding will have to come from another form of tax. At this point, at least two things, almost unprecedented in the annals of Indiana politics, will have to happen. Lawmakers are going to have to be creative and somebody is going to have to show some leadership.

In Illinois, disgraced ex-governor Rod Blagojevich proposed taxing canned computer software. Republicans there have revived that idea, along with imposing sales taxes on downloaded music and videos. Otherwise, that state could be looking at increased income taxes in order to try and save its eroding public services.

Closer to home, Mayor Ballard is going to find that public transit will make a hard right turn, morphing from blue sky vision to hot potato. The mayor won his office by running against taxes. In doing so, his constituents not only defeated incumbent Bart Peterson, but the will of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and the corporate CEOs who endorsed Peterson – the same crew advocating for public transit today.

For the Indy Connect plan to work, Mayor Ballard is going to have to champion it with the people who elected him to stifle their taxes. That will take leadership.

And a chorus to constantly remind him: We need this.

To learn more about Indy Connect meetings and to participate in surveys, go to IndyConnect.org.

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