IndyGo seeks to separate Red Line and tax hike vote

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- If Marion County voters have given any thought at all to a proposed tax hike on the November ballot, they most likely think the higher levy is to fund a permanent rapid transit infrastructure called the Red Line.

Wrong.

“The Red Line is moving forward regardless of the outcome of the referendum,” said Bryan Luellen, IndyGo spokesman about the hardline system that will feature permanent bus stops and extended electric vehicles. “The referendum is about building out the rest of the IndyGo system.”

The proposal would raise taxes about $100 per every $40,000 of annual income.

IndyGo President & CEO Mike Terry came in for a grilling before the Municipal Corporations Committee of the City County Council when he presented the transit agency’s proposed 2017 budget.

“So that if the referendum fails in November, you’re not coming to this committee, you’re not coming to the state and you’re not saying, ‘Oh, I need bailed out because now I’ve built something I can’t afford?’” Republican Councilman Aaron Freeman asked after learning the Red Line would be built and operated regardless of the outcome of the proposed tax increase vote. “You’re out there all in, chips in the middle of the table, on an issue that, if the referendum does not pass, you’re hedging on whether you can afford to operate your system under what you currently have.”

“I am hedging,” said Terry. “I don’t know what the unknowns are for the future. I don’t know what fuel and health care and wages in the future will be.”

Terry also couldn’t guarantee the transit system wouldn’t return to voters in 2018 for another income  tax increase or the council in 2017 for a levy hike if the referendum fails.

“I don’t know what the unknowns are going to be but I don’t have any plans in the future,” said Terry.

“I sure hope you have the funding or the taxpayers bail you out in November,” said Freeman.

IndyGo may not have a back up plan if the tax increase is defeated, or approved by voters but denied by the council, however should the referendum pass, taxpayers will be on the hook for $56 million in additional funding with no promise that the proposed bus service improvements will be delivered.

That’s because IndyGo has yet to apply for, let alone receive approval of, four federal grants that will fund at least 60% of a $390 million service expansion plan.

“The referendum is really about building out the rest of the system and making more frequent buses come across the city throughout the IndyGo system,” said Luellen.

Congress is yet to approve the Red Line’s $75 million grant, though denial would be unprecedented, said IndyGo officials.

Luellen insisted IndyGo can operate the Red Line with cash on hand and by eliminating duplicated routes whether or not the November referendum passes.

“The $75 million Red Line grant is specifically as we proposed it. Infrastructure for dedicated bus lanes on sections of the corridor, stations spaced every half mile and new electric vehicles to run on the Red Line route.

“What’s up to vote this fall is a dedicated source of funding that would allow IndyGo to expand.”

That expansion, according to Luellen, would improve service by 70% including more buses running longer hours seven days a week.

If the unapplied for federal grants are improved.

IndyGo’s current $71 million annual budget would increase to $110 million with the remainder of the revenue captured by the income tax hike dedicated to capitol spending.

Luellen said with the construction of the Red Line, several existing routes, including from Castleton to downtown, will instead terminate at the new transit line, feeding riders to the quicker service which will feature fewer stops along the route.

The Purple and Blue lines, running along 38th and Washington Streets respectively, would be dependent upon revenue raised by the referendum.

IndyGo participated in a public relations blitz this week by granting free rides along the proposed east-west lines and parking a bus on Monument Circle during Indy Car Free Day activities.

The system is restricted to providing only non-partisan information regarding the referendum.

Should the November vote fail, IndyGo will conduct, “realignments,” of services, to quote Terry, but is precluded from eliminating free passes to classes of protected riders, such as the disabled, or cannibalizing existing routes to pay for Red Line operations, according to Luellen.

While IndyGo fare box revenues are expected to roll back slightly to $11 million in the coming year, a projection included in the system’s Red Line grant request expects those revenues to jump to $16 million after the mass transit line hits the road.

“Until we know the outcome of the referendum, we don’t have any idea of what the ridership is going to be,” said Luellen.  “If the referendum passes and we can build out a more frequent network, we’re gonna see huge increases in ridership because the service is going to be more reliable, it's going to be more frequent and it's gonna be more useful throughout the whole day, everyday.

“Whenever there’s an availability in the service, people are going to use the service more,” Luellen said, quoting studies done of other urban transit system expansions. “That’s the real problem that the referendum is trying to address. IndyGo is not meeting the needs of the community in terms of how frequent the buses come, in terms of how many hours of the day the routes are served and weekend service.”

IndyGo is not telling taxpayers how to vote on the November referendum,

“That’s a question for each individual voter,” said Luellen.

Mayor Joe Hogsett has taken the same position, telling FOX59 during a Wednesday morning bus ride that he was still learning and educating himself about the pending vote.