Mass transit advocates begin push at Statehouse for local referendum tax vote

Marion, Hamilton counties would be first to decide

INDIANAPOLIS - The bill that could produce a modernized and greatly expanded mass transit system in central Indiana began working its way through the legislature Wednesday.

But it's still a long way from reality.

And there is still disagreement among sponsors over how to pay for it.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard urged state lawmakers to allow local residents to vote on whether to expand their transit system, a system he calls the missing link in making the city a Midwest powerhouse.

"We don't do a very good job of connecting people to available jobs, to cultural events, to sporting venues, to education, to health care and to each other," said Ballard.

Transit advocates said lack of mobility is seriously holding back the local economy.

They hope voters in Marion and Hamilton Counties, the two main population centers and business centers of the metro area, will be able to vote on an income tax increase to fund the expansion.

"The plan that we believe in offers a number of benefits for the communities that adopt it and decide to invest in it.  It offers mobility and access to jobs, but not just jobs.  To health care, to groceries, to basic services that many people in our community have no other way to get to," said Mark Miles, former head of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership.

The plan that advocates are pushing calls for several north-to-south and east-to-west light rail or bus rapid transit lines and a doubling of existing bus service within Marion County.

But this bill doesn't actually spell that out.

What it really does is set up a local authority that would decide all that, if voters decide to fork over the money.

"You'll hear a lot about a transit plan,” said Rep. Jerry Torr of Carmel.  “But none of this is in here.  And a lot of people think of this as a bill that involves light rail with train.  And it may, or it may not, if the transit authority or transit district is even set up."

Despite the enthusiasm of advocates, critics still say central Indiana doesn't have the population density to support mass transit.

The cause could be hurt by infighting among the supporters, with some pushing an income tax increase and others favoring a sales tax.

The House Transportation Committee will vote on amendments and the actual bill itself at a later date.

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