Mass transit debate moves to suburbs after Red Line secures funding

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Now that President Trump’s signature has assured IndyGo of $50 million to build out the Red Line and the rest of its system, the debate over mass transit and new taxes to pay for enhanced bus service moves on to Marion County’s suburbs.

Indy Connect, a consortium of public, business and consumer mass transit supporters, is conducting an on-line survey of Johnson and Hamilton County residents to gauge their support for following Marion County’s lead in establishing a new income tax of $100 on every $40,000 of income to pay for expansion of the Red Line from Westfield to Greenwood.

The survey comes after congressional and White House approval of two-thirds of the money sought by IndyGo to build the Red Line dedicated service from Broad Ripple to downtown to the University of Indianapolis and improve routes along east/west corridors.

IndyGo CEO Mike Terry said the bus agency will go back to Congress in the coming year for the additional $25 million that was promised but not approved in the recently approved 2017 federal budget.

“This isn’t just for the Red Line,” said Terry. “This is also formula grant money that we utilize for projects and for operations.

“This wasn’t necessarily unexpected. We were anticipating this was to be spread out over two budget years anyway so I think to have the fifty million gets us started significantly.”

Terry said IndyGo will begin running more buses more frequently and during longer hours among some existing routes and will solicit bids from contractors later this year to begin Red Line construction in 2018.

By a 60-40 percent margin last November, voters in Marion County approved a new income tax to raise $54 million annually beginning this fall to pay for expanded mass transit.

It’s a question that could face voters in Hamilton and Johnson County as soon as November of next year.

The Indy Connect survey and mass transit planners envision an enhanced bus line running, in one scenario, up US 31 to Westfield to connect Indianapolis job seekers with employers in Hamilton County.

Another plan has the south end of the Red Line building out from UIndy down Shelby Street to Madison Avenue, past Greenwood Park Mall and terminating at Smith Valley Road near downtown Greenwood.

“We need some sort of mass transit that will get us up to Indianapolis,” said Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers, “as we look into the next five to seven years as we’re building out the downtown area, where the middle school was, we’re looking at putting 480 more rooftops in this area, looking at about a thousand people more in the downtown area, and if we had the Red Line coming through here, it would have stops programmed right in front of our city offices.”

Myers said that while business owners support enhanced bus service, residents of Pleasant Township may balk at an income tax that would affect only their community in Johnson County.

“I understand that argument, but at the same time, those businesses are going to be employing people that will be depending on that line to come back and forth,” said Myers. “I think it's going to benefit the residents of Greenwood because they are going to shop at these stores that are going to put the economy back into these stores.”

Fred Glynn, president of the Hamilton County Council, said if business owners in the northside suburb want to attract more Marion County residents to work in their stores, restaurant and hotels, they ought to pay higher wages or subsidize the transit expansion.

“Most of the people I am talking to are not in favor of an income tax,” said Glynn. “People who are showing up the meeting and hearing both sides of the story are not up for paying an income tax for that form of transit.

“You’re not going to want to pay for something you’re not going to use and the argument is always that we need to get workers up into Hamilton County.

“The only argument is to bring the workers in, so if you really think about it, it's not going to serve Hamilton County residents. It's going to serve Hamilton County businesses.”

Heavy lobbying by business interests convinced state lawmakers, on the fourth attempt, to put the tax burden on individual taxpayers and not business or property owners, though some corporations in Boone and Hendricks counties have subsidized expanded transit service to shuttle employees from Marion County to their workplaces.

The General Assembly did include a stipulation in the legislation adopting the transit funding mechanism to require local transit agencies to raise a ten percent match of their overall income tax revenue with money captured through a non-profit foundation.

In Marion County’s case, IndyGo would responsible for raising $5.4 million of non-tax revenue to augment its spending plan.

IndyGo CEO Mike Terry said that while his agency is still exploring establishment of such a foundation, the bus system doesn’t feel bound to the ten percent match requirement and drew up its budget plan without counting on the additional funds.

“If we hit that 5.4 million per year, fantastic, but if we don’t, there’s no penalty.”

Terry said that match can be raised through bus advertising or naming rights along with charitable donations from business interests which are yet to be identified.

The Indy Chamber was a financial supporter of the campaign to approve the Marion County mass transit referendum but has not yet been approached about contributing to the foundation or its expansion mandate.

Lawmakers insisted that any shortfall in the foundation match of income tax revenue could not be made up with other tax funding, precluding additional City County Council funds as all of its revenue is derived from taxes.

The Council will likely review IndyGo’s transit plan in June and examine the agency’s commitment to establishment of a foundation and whether it will meet the statutory requirement regarding the ten percent match of the income tax revenue.