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New mass transit proposal approved by study committee

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State lawmakers are getting ready to draft new mass transit legislation, after a study committee announced recommendations Thursday that were overwhelmingly approved by committee members.

It’s a plan that you could get to vote on too, if it ends up on this November’s ballot.

At the bus stop Downtown, passengers say it’s time for some improvements.

“It’s long overdue,” said Ayanna Person. “I think that’s a big problem we have with people being able to get back and forth to work.”

Person said the less than adequate bus service has even kept her from taking jobs in the past.

“I’ve turned down several job offers because the bus service wasn’t right. It didn’t go out far enough, didn’t run often enough,” said Person. “They really need more bus service on the south side of Indianapolis.”

And now that’s part of the plan – with the study committee recommending that Johnson County be included in the plan along with Marion, Hamilton, Madison and Delaware county.

“If we do it right I think you’ll find that many counties will want to opt in,” said state Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood. “I think with Delaware County’s admission and Johnson County’s admission, we’re beginning to see some critical mass which I think is what we set out to do… Businesses can locate to places like the south side, like Greenwood, that they might not be able to otherwise because of not having the ability to get their employees to the office.”

Waltz and Sen. Pat Miller, R-Indianapolis, will author the legislation in the Senate next session.

It’s a proposal that’s somewhat scaled back, potentially involving less than half the money called for in last year’s $1.3 billion legislation, which got shot down by the Senate after being approved by the House.

“We spent an enormous amount of time studying and gathering information and really closely looking at the proposal,” said Sen. Miller.

“I can think of 1.3 billion reasons why it’s a much better idea,” said Sen. Waltz, who told Fox 59 the new legislation would have a price tag between $35 and $50 million.

“It’s pretty scaled back from what we passed out of the House (last year), but it’s a great starting point and certainly a big step forward,” said Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, the author of last year’s mass transit bill.

But what about the plans for light rail – would there still be enough money to make it a reality?

“The next piece is the creation of the rapid transit lines,” said Indy Connect Now executive director Ron Gifford. “And it’s possible on one of those, the Green line that runs from Downtown to Hamilton County, it’s possible light rail could be the technology that’s still under consideration there. The transportation planners are still analyzing the costs associated with that.”

Still, Torr admits the scaled back plan would likely not involve enough money for local governments to install a rail system, unless more funding was obtained from other sources, like the federal government.

If approved by the legislature and by voters in the individual counties, an income tax increase would pay for 65 percent of that upgraded transit system. Bus fares would account for 25 percent, and corporations would have to pay 10 percent, as structured in Thursday’s study committee recommendations.

“Businesses should pay their fair share if they’re getting some benefit,” said Waltz.

While the new recommendations were approved 12-1 by the joint House-Senate committee on Thursday, legislators acknowledged the fact that there was still a long way to go, with many changes likely before the bill goes through the General Assembly next year. The legislation, if passed, would call for tax increases in participating counties that wished to hold a referendum.

Some opponents still don’t like the idea of a new tax. Americans for Prosperity issued this statement late Thursday:

“Today’s proposal from the central Indiana transit study committee is certainly new in form but the substance appears to remain the same,” stated Chase Downham, Indiana Director for AFP. “With this proposal, not only will the citizens of central Indiana continue to face potentially higher taxes, job creators could now be facing higher taxes as well. Also concerning is the fact that this proposal would pave the way for tax increase referendums to extend beyond Hamilton and Marion counties to include others such as Delaware, Johnson and Madison.”

Supporters are still hoping to get the issue on next year’s ballot to pay for the new mass transit system.

Planners have unveiled specific proposals for a “blue line” bus route that would run east and west from the airport to the Cumberland area, a “red line” bus route that would run north and south, and a “green line” bus (or train) route that would run from Noblesville to downtown.

Transportation officials said the light rail system was still being considered, though many state lawmakers were hesitant to embrace the idea earlier this year. Instead of approving a plan that would have allowed for a referendum, lawmakers sent the mass transit issue to a summer study committee.

Transportation planners said if a light rail system was not used, crews would likely repave that corridor as a “bus way” from Noblesville into downtown Indianapolis, possibly using parts of Massachusetts Avenue along the way.

The new proposal will be introduced in the Senate when the legislative session starts in January.