After years of study, the local business community, as

represented by the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, is now endorsing plans

to modernize and improve the regional transportation system — including a

0.3 percent local income tax increase to fund the effort.

Two major hurdles — both related to funding —

remain before such plans can be actualized. First, the Indiana General Assembly must

endow Central Indiana communities with the authority to vote on tax increases

dedicated to implementing local plans and enable the creation of a regional

transportation authority to oversee the process. Second, the voters must decide

that such improvements are needed and that the proposed plan is sufficient to

satisfy that need.

The task force is an outreach of four main groups: the

Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, which brings together local chief

executives and university presidents to explore strategies for long-term

prosperity in the region; the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce; the

Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors; and the Central Indiana Community

Foundation

.

"It is important for taxpayers to decide for themselves

whether they think there's adequate value for their money," said CICP

Chief Executive Mark Miles at a news conference Tuesday.

Based on three years of study, and "more due diligence,

scrutiny and economic analysis ... than perhaps any other planning process of

this type anywhere in the country," Miles voiced confidence that voter

support could be won.

A roomful of business leaders and politicians packed the

room as other local leaders rose to offer their endorsements.

"This proposal, if approved by the General Assembly and

the voters in 2012, will have a dramatic impact on our region,"

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said.

"We can make this thing happen. I invite all of you to

join us on that journey."

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, who, like Ballard is a

Republican, also voiced support of the plan, which he said would provide better

access to jobs, health care and educational opportunities, as well as greater

flexibility to people who can't drive.

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The bottom line

The task force plan was developed in concert with the

Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, IndyGo and the Central Indiana

Regional Transportation Authority. The plan reflects input collected during

public meetings hosted by Indy Connect.

Phase One of the regional transportation plan proposes

several improvements to local bus service: a doubling of the service in Marion

County and expansion to Hamilton County; the creation of four bus rapid transit

routes, which feature dedicated lanes and prioritized signals, "like a

light rail on wheels," supporters say; six express routes offering

non-stop service among major economic corridors and the airport; andshuttle bus service connecting to

downtown high-traffic areas such as IU Health, Eli Lilly and IUPUI. Shuttle

connectors would also run in the downtowns of Lawrence, Carmel, Fishers and

Noblesville.

In addition, the plan calls for rail service along the

Indiana State Fair train line from downtown to Noblesville. Proposed stops

include the near Eastside, Martindale-Brightwood, the Binford area, Castleton,

Fishers and the fairgrounds.

The first phase also provides for feasibility and design

studies to consider improved transit to other adjacent counties, including

Hendricks and Johnson, and additional connections to the airport, including

light rail.

Boosters estimate the first phase of the proposed plan would

require a $1.3 billion initial capital investment with annual operating costs

pegged at $136 million. They estimate this tax would translate to $10 a month

for a family of four making $50,000 a year.

The plan would cost "a lot of money," Brainard said. But, he added, noting road construction and

maintenance costs, "All transportation is expensive."

The plan is devised so that the tax levies will return

benefits to the counties that pay into the system. In the first phase, Marion

and Hamilton counties have the option to buy in, but both must do so to make the plan work. If other counties decide to

buy in, their taxes will support the linking of their county into the larger

regional network.

The the task force's proposal would be drafted so that the proposed tax increase would not take effect unless both Marion and Hamilton counties opt in, CICP's Ron Gifford explained in a follow-up phone call.

"Demonstrating that we can work together as a region is

only going to make Central Indiana more attractive for businesses to come in

and invest," said Hamilton County Commissioner Christine Altman, a

Republican who also serves as chair of the Central Indiana Regional Transit

Authority.

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Looking toward the

Legislature

While the long-term transportation plans involve all the

surrounding counties except Shelby, the initial phase focuses on Marion and

Hamilton counties and voters there would be first to consider ballot referenda.

If the General Assembly clears the way, the question will appear on ballots in

the 2012 general election.

Transit boosters say they have supporters in the fiscal

leadership of both the House and Senate willing to shepherd enabling

legislation through the General Assembly. Bill sponsors have yet to be announced.

Despite the wide-spread support among several sectors, from

business to public health advocates, the transit plan cannot be characterized

as an easy sell to legislators or voters against tax increases or certain that

the plan will not realize its promised benefits.

Reader feedback to a recent Web posting about the plan by

the Indianapolis Business Journal characterized

such sentiment. "Transit systems in American cities are a joke; failures

that bleed taxpayers dry," read one of several comments opposed to various

aspects of the plan.

Boosters counter that the plan offers "broad-based

dividends." CICP's Miles said he hoped state

lawmakers would view the proposal "less as a legislative vote for a tax

and more allowing the people to decide for themselves."

Supporters are already rallying their legislative lobby.

CIRTA and Indiana Citizens' Alliance for Transit are circulating a petition,

which currently includes more than 4,300 signatures. At its

Greening the Statehouse forum held last weekend, the Hoosier Environmental

Council, collected letters to lawmakers expressing support for the plan.

During the forum, CICP Executive Vice President Ron Gifford

told the crowd that inability to provide robust mass transit would hurt the

region's ability to compete for jobs and new residents.

Developing support means gathering both people who will use

the system and people who don't plan to use the system but believe it's

important for others to have access to such a system, he said.

Gifford concluded, "Your

support at the grassroots level absolutely critical."

Editor's Note: The online version of this story differs slightly from the print version in that it clarifies what will happen if Marion or Hamilton County fails to pass the referenda and it removes an extraneous "s" from Gifford's last name in the story's final paragraph.

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