Hamilton County reduces transit funds

NOBLESVILLE, Ind.-- As a regional transportation authority leads the way in promoting a controversial mass transit plan for Marion County, officials in Hamilton County have reduced their funding to the organization.

The Hamilton County Council voted to slash two-thirds of its annual subsidy to the Central Indiana Transportation Authority because of concerns over a potential conflict of interest and philosophical opposition to the organization’s support for mass transit lines connecting Marion County to its neighbor to the north.

Councilman-at-Large Rick McKinney said Hamilton County would not provide $59,000 next year for a legal services contract between CIRTA and the law firm of another local official.

But McKinney said the Council also doubts CIRTA’s support for IndyGo’s Red Line and its proposed expansion into Hamilton County and a state legislative mandate that any new funding for additional bus service be paid for through an income tax hike.

“We on the council, the majority of the council, are not that comfortable with mass transit in the form of a tax increase,” said McKinney, a republican. “One, that it's not warranted, two, there could be another way of funding it and, three, the need is not there.”

Marion County voters will be asked during the general election to approve an income tax increase that amounts to an additional $100 for every $40,000 of income to fund the IndyGo expansion plans.

IndyGo’s Red Line is awaiting final congressional approval of a $75 million grant to build dedicated infrastructure and stations along a 14-mile route from Broad Ripple to downtown to the University of Indianapolis on the city’s southside.

Phases II and III of the plan are dependent on the success of an income tax referendum on the November ballot and would extend the line to Carmel and Greenwood in the decade to come as well as upgrade mostly east/west routes that would feed the Red Line.

Regardless of the referendum outcome, the Red Line will be built pending approval of the federal grant, though eventual expansion into Hamilton County is less certain.

“I think it's absolutely wishful thinking or, in another analogy, a pipe dream because the people up here need their cars, they want their cars, things are too spread out,” said McKinney.  “I’ve had constituents, people contact me from all over county from the far northern, which is not that populated, to the south, which is Fishers and Carmel, that don’t see the need for it, will not plan to use it, will not want to give up their cars.”

McKinney said he is philosophically and financially opposed to putting the burden of the mass transit expansion funding on the backs of individual income tax payers as opposed to other traditional alternatives.

“Most systems are funded by sales tax. Not property and not income. Income tax is a rarity in the nation,” said McKinney who argues that his opposition is twofold.

“One, that it never goes away, and, two, that inevitably it will go up and keep going up.”

IndyGo President and CEO Mike Terry told a committee of the City County Council last week that he could not promise councilmembers his agency would not return to them in the coming years for additional tax money regardless of the outcome of the November ballot.

If Marion County taxpayers approve the referendum, it would inject $56 million of additional revenue into IndyGo every year, boosting the transit agency’s annual operating budget from $71 million to $110 million with the remainder of the tax increase proceeds placed in the bus service’s capital improvement fund.

IndyGo would then need to leverage four federal grants, which are yet to be applied for, to raise enough money to build out the rest of its system by 2021 and be poised for expansion into Hamilton and Johnson counties.

“If the referendum fails, we will go through a planning process that says, ‘Red Line is happening, what do we do with the rest of the system?’” said IndyGo Spokesman Bryan Luellen who indicated the agency is precluded from endorsing the tax increase proposal. “That’s a question for each individual voter.”

One of those voters would be Mayor Joe Hogsett who told CBS4, while riding on an IndyGo bus, that he is not taking a position on the referendum.

“I’m getting educated just like I want the voters to be educated,” said the mayor who pointed out that the county’s mass transit system needs to be upgraded. “This is a significant decision they have to make about rapid transit in Indianapolis and as a leader in the city we will listen very closely what they have to say in November.”

Supporters of the tax referendum, which include the Indy Chamber, AARP, the Urban League and the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors, are set to launch a massive marketing campaign in favor of the IndyGo expansion and its funding.

While the transit agency receives a significant portion of its funding from other tax levies, a property or business-related tax is not on the agenda, though corporate and business partners endorsing the income tax increase could be expected to benefit financially from the development of properties along the proposed expanded bus routes or from additional ease of access afforded both customers and employees.