CHICAGO — Transit advocates in central Indiana plan to push forward with a high-profile regional transportation plan that features a $2.5 billion mass-transit expansion despite opposition from Republican leaders.
IndyConnect, a quasi-governmental group, on Monday released an $11.5 billion, 25-year regional transportation plan.
The bulk of the funds — $9 billion — covers construction of roads and bridges. The remaining $2.5 billion would finance a new mass-transit system, such as light rail and more buses to connect Indianapolis and the surrounding area.
“The significant difference here is that for the first time in central Indiana, really significant attention is being paid to mass transit in that plan,” said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, one of three agencies that makes up IndyConnect.
Current regional transit funding relies on a mix of state and federal money, so-called fare-box revenue, and property taxes. The existing funding mix would cover only half of the $2.5 billion plan, which would cost $135 million annually for capital and operations.
The group is lobbying lawmakers to craft legislation allowing counties to put referendums on local ballots asking voters whether they support dedicating a new tax to finance the mass transit expansion.
The plan was announced less than a week after Republicans won control of both chambers of the General Assembly. Within days, GOP leaders told local reporters they were opposed to the referendum legislation.
Sen. Luke Kenley, Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Indianapolis Star that the timing is not right amid a fragile state economy and as residents are still struggling with the recession’s impact.
Despite the early opposition, IndyConnect officials said they still intend to hold a series of public meetings touting the plan and to ask lawmakers for their support.
“Obviously this is a difficult time to be asking folks to look at new taxes or funding, but what we’re asking for is enabling legislation that would then give voters the opportunity to say yes or no,” Bingaman said.
Like other Indiana officials, he said referendums are beginning to gain popularity in Indiana, not traditionally known as a referendum state. A recent ballot question asking voters to make the state’s property tax caps part of the constitution proved popular with voters.
“We’re getting more into referendums on a state policy level,” Bingaman said. “I think that was a part of the point of the property-tax cap question.”
He said more Hoosiers are starting to “embrace mass transit as a cultural shift.”
He noted that nationally, voters approved 80% of transit questions that appeared on ballots two weeks ago.
“For elected officials, mass transit is not viewed as one of the basics,” Bingaman said. “I think they’d be surprised by the responsiveness of the electorate.”
If implemented, IndyConnect estimates the entire regional transportation plan would cost $15 a month for each household in central Indiana.
At the heart of the mass transit plan is expanded bus service that would connect to light rail, bike and pedestrian paths, and roads. The bus boost would triple existing service.
A new commuter line would connect Indianapolis to the nearby towns of Noblesville and Franklin. A light-rail line would connect Indianapolis International Airport with other key parts of the city. To drum up support for the plan, advocates are holding a series of meetings across the region through November. They hope to lobby lawmakers at the same time before the new Republican majority takes over in January.
“We’ll continue to work with our General Assembly and see if we can get anything done before the end of the year,” Bingaman said.