By Ellie Price
A Republican state senator from Central Indiana offered an alternative Tuesday to a $1.3 billion mass transit plan that was debated but failed to pass during last spring's legislative session.
Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, said the goal of his proposal is to give Hoosiers who are paying higher taxes for improved transit more "value" for their spending. His plan includes using some of the anticipated new tax revenue to expand roads and highways.
"The vast majority of taxpayers would probably never use mass transit in Central Indiana," Waltz said. "So there needs to be some expansion involving roads to be able to provide that value proposition."
But supporters of the original plan argued that Hoosiers would benefit even if they didn't use mass transit - and that led to some heated exchanges over the issue.
Earlier this year, the Indiana House approved legislation that would let Central Indiana voters decide in county referendums whether to approve tax hikes to pay for a mass transit project. The money would have paid for new buses, expanded and more frequent routes, and a high-speed rail line between Hamilton County and downtown Indianapolis.
However, the Senate removed that language, sending the issue to the Central Indiana Mass Transit Study Committee for consideration before the 2014 legislative session.
In its second meeting Tuesday, the study committee heard from Waltz, who told lawmakers he's not a transit expert but had been studying the issue, including trips to see mass transit systems in other cities.
A key point of Waltz's plan is using tax money to expand roads in places that will help alleviate congestion. He said he wanted to give local officials the opportunity to choose which roads should be affected.
His plan also includes rebuilding the IndyGo bus system to make it more efficient. He said officials need to essentially start from scratch and reconsider routes, bus sizes and route frequency.
And he said he the proposed light rail plan should be eliminated with direct bus routes that have fewer stops. The high speed rail is too expensive, and bus routes can be adjusted as necessary, he said.
"You can't undo a rail line once it's put in," he said.
Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, who is an advocate of the original mass transit plan, attacked Waltz's plan and questioned him about his analysis that not everyone would benefit from a better mass transit system.
Delaney said mass transit could lead to less congestion and could reduce the need for expanded roads and highways in the future, which would benefit all Hoosiers.
"Isn't it true that even those who don't use the service benefit from it?" Delaney said.
Delaney accused Waltz of trying to micromanage local officials by telling them what roads they can and can't expand or where to run buses. But Waltz said his proposal does no such thing.
"That's not a level of detail that I would advocate," Waltz said. "That is best left to people far more knowledgeable about traffic patterns and road patterns, but I do think it's important for us to be able to offer some leadership on this issue."
Waltz and Delaney sparred during the meeting, a debate that had started in a letter to the editor Delaney had published in The Indianapolis Star, in which he called the Republican's plan a "bromide," which refers to something that is trite and unoriginal.
Waltz on Tuesday called that letter an "interesting choice of words considering some of the proposals you've advocated are about as antiquated as that term and so I don't think we're going to agree on this issue."
At that point, the committee's chairwoman - Sen. Pat Miller, R-Indianapolis - interrupted the exchange.
"The dialogue between the two of you needs to stay on point," Miller said.
Waltz also told the committee that the General Assembly should provide a framework for increasing taxes but allow individual counties to choose what is best for them. For example, Hamilton County might support an income tax, but a regional sales tax may be best for Johnson County, he said.
The study committee also heard testimony from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is working with the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority and IndyGo to provide residents with transportation options.
Anna Tyszkiewicz Gremling, executive director of the planning organization, explained the locations of proposed stations and the transit lines under the most recent version of the original mass transit proposal.
The five rapid transit lines would transport Hoosiers to locations in Marion County and the surrounding, doughnut counties.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said he was concerned that the locations of the rapid transit lines, which were determined for the proposal based on large populations of Hoosiers, are not easily accessible to his constituents in parts of Center, Pike, Washington and Wayne townships.
He said people in his district, which has a 15 percent unemployment rate, are hopeful the mass transit system becomes a job creator.
"But nowhere on this map do I see access to jobs as far as my district," he said.
Sean Northup, assistant executive director of the Indianapolis planning organization, said his constituents can still benefit from improvements to the local bus system since the system's services would expand and offer longer hours.
Ellie Price is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.