IndyCAN helps bus riders register to vote before mass transit referendum

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Perhaps no demographic of voters has more at stake in a November mass transit referendum in Marion County than riders of IndyGo buses.

Marion County voters will be asked to approve an income tax hike that would raise their taxes about ten dollars a month for the average county income taxpayer, about $50 per year for every $20,000 of income.

Lower income voters, those residents dependent upon bus service to go to work, school or appointments, would be hit, percentage-wise, at the same rate as higher income wage earners who likely won’t become IndyGo riders.

“If it's only fifty bucks, if anybody pays attention on what they spend on fifty bucks, you spend that a month on fast food, and if it's gonna help you get back and forth to work so you continue to make the money, what does fifty bucks matter?” asked Stephen Harden, an IndyGo rider outside the Julia M. Carson Transit Center in downtown Indianapolis. “Anybody who doesn’t catch the bus, they aren’t going to care about the transit, but for us, the people that, if you look around down here, people that’s down here catching the bus, we care, we have to be down here, we have to get back and forth on where we got to go, so, yeah, we care.”

Harden was accompanying staff from IndyCAN, a consortium of churches and faith based organizations, who were registering bus riders to vote in November.

“We want to talk to people to make sure they vote as if their lives depend on it, and with that being said, this referendum in November is going to allow us to be able to give the black and brown people who actually use the bus and use transit a voice in how it operates and how it runs,” said IndyCAN Operations Manager Nicole Barnes. “We’re spending a lot of time educating and that’s why this is important. We’re talking to people and letting them know that this is actually on there because there are a lot of people who do not know, and we’re letting them know what it means and exactly what it is for.”

What the vote is for is to boost IndyGo revenues by $56 million a year, almost doubling its current budget, to improve mostly east-west routes that will feed into the Red Line, a north-south rapid transit corridor that will be built regardless of the outcome of next month’s referendum.

The leader of one of Indianapolis’ largest churches which will sit on one of the Red Line’s main intersections at 38th and Meridian Streets said his congregation understands and supports the dedicated transit tax increase.

“It’s a reasonable burden for all of us to carry in order to improve life in the city because we are going to get so much more out of it,” said Pastor Darren Cushman-Wood of North United Methodist Church. “Where we’re located is at the epicenter of where all this development would happen and so we have a very personal interest in seeing that it benefits our most vulnerable citizens, the poorest of the poor, who right now struggle against impossible odds to be able to find work and one of those major obstacles is good efficient transportation.”

Part of the federal mandate, and the anticipated congressional approval of a $75 million grant to build the Red Line, is the expected development of neighborhoods and properties along the 13-mile long route from Broad Ripple down College Avenue to 38th Street to Meridian Street and Capitol Avenue to downtown and Fountain Square and south along Shelby Street.

For its match of the federal grant, IndyGo cobbled together state and local funds and projected fare box revenues to reach $16 million in 2018, a nearly fifty percent increase over next year’s predicted fare box take, which is actually expected to go down from 2016.

If Congress authorizes the allocated Red Line funds, and construction goes according to plan, IndyGo officials would not cut the ribbon on the service until the end of 2018 while anticipating fare box revenues to make a huge leap before the first articulated bus on the new route runs.

Business community supporters, whose members’ real estate, company and corporate interests won’t take a direct hit from the proposed income tax hike, have said it took four years to convince the General Assembly to approve the  income tax referendum funding mechanism which will be the focus of a “Yes” vote advertising campaign until Election Day.

Transit systems across the state of Indiana are watching the outcome of the Marion County vote to determine if such a referendum would be viable to support bus services in their hometowns.