Compromise offered to stall Blue Line but raise Indy road funds

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INDIANAPOLIS — IndyGo’s $220 million Blue Line project remains in peril at the Indiana Statehouse as an amendment has been offered to help solve Indianapolis’ road funding woes but possibly negate one big reason Mayor Joe Hogsett supports the bus rapid transit expansion plan.

Rep. Bob Behning, a republican representing Marion and Hendricks Counties, offered an amendment that would boost state support for Indianapolis infrastructure improvements $10 million per year.

Right now, Indianapolis receives $1 million annually from the state’s Community Crossing funding.

IndyGo has predicted that $100 million of the Blue Line construction budget would pay for improvements along Washington Street from Cumberland on the east to I-465 on the west with $70 million of that total supplied by a federal grant.

Department of Public Works Director Dan Parker told lawmakers during a hearing before the House Roads and Transportation Committee that the City doesn’t have the money to fund the improvements that the Blue Line would bring.

“Along Washington Street via the Blue Line project, Indianapolis stands to gain 17 lane miles of street reconstruction, 10.5 miles of new or repaired sidewalks, 2.2 miles of multi-use path and 499 American Disability Act compliant curb ramps.”

Blue Line opponents have complained that the proposed bus service would take up three of Washington Street’s five lanes and add to traffic congestion.

Supporters argue that Washington Street is underused, workers could ride to jobs at Indianapolis International Airport and the west side suburbs and streets and neighborhoods would receive long overdue infrastructure improvements.

Behning’s amendment would drive a wedge between the City and IndyGo on the key infrastructure funding component of the project.

“It appears to me that the city of Indianapolis is grabbing the federal money as an opportunity to help alleviate the shortage they have of revenue to meet their infrastructure, not necessarily focusing on what is in the best interests of all of its constituents,” said Behning who claimed that Indianapolis could help its own road repair funding cause by raising its Wheel Tax revenues by $50 million a year. “I’m not willing to take federal money that requires us to do that which is not in the best interests of my constituents or that requires me to do something that I think is not in the best interests of the community.”

IndyGo President & CEO Inez Evans said that forcing the transit corporation to rewrite the Blue Line proposal to eliminate its dedicated lane down the middle of Washington Street would delay federal government approval of the resubmitted project and potentially reduce funding.

“If we put the station in the middle of the street, we’re touching every aspect of the roadway, digging down in the dirt to repair the infrastructure. If the station is on the side of the road, as our stops are now, there’s simply no reason or funding for IndyGo to address the issues such as drainage or paving,” said Evans. “This is bigger than dedicated lanes. This is about going after every single federal dollar we can get for transit and infrastructure improvements possible. IndyGo is providing the service our city voted for.”

In 2016, Marion County voters agreed to a new transit income tax to fund IndyGo expansion.

“I’m happy to stand up for the taxpaying citizens of Marion County,” said Senator Aaron Freeman, sponsor of SB 141 and a republican from Franklin Township who cites declining IndyGo ridership statistics as justification for rethinking the expansion plans. “It comes down in my opinion to Marion County cannot afford this. They cannot afford this. It is not sustainable.  I’ve been told that we gotta seek the higher amount of federal tax dollars, we gotta go after dedicated lanes because there’s more federal money available for dedicated lanes.”

Freeman has blasted IndyGo for what he calls its failure to live up to 2014 enabling legislation that permitted the transit income tax referendum only if the transit corporation agreed to raise millions of dollars in matching funds through a foundation and other non-tax revenues.

IndyGo is in receipt of a Legislative Services Agency finding that it can count federal grants as non-tax revenues and therefore has met its funding obligations.

Freeman disagrees.

“The Indiana Attorney General weighed in on it and he said…wait for it…federal grant dollars are tax dollars.”

Evans stood her ground.

“I would like to reiterate that IndyGo has met the requirements that are currently on the books. Current legislation does not state that funding requirements be met through private donations,” she told the committee.  “What the bill does is change the expectations of IndyGo and change the rules that we have already been abiding by and the expectations that we’ve already met.”

At the end of the two-hour long hearing, Chairman Rep. Jim Pressel announced he would hold the bill for consideration.

The committee did not vote on Behning’s proposed amendment.

The delay in committee action on the bill gives both IndyGo backers and their opponents time to shore up support should the bill come back before the committee for approval and make its way to the House floor.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett told Fox 59 News that he supports the Blue Line project yet recognizes the concerns of state lawmakers who believe IndyGo has not lived up to its fundraising obligations.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and that’s certainly true here,” said Hogsett referring to the initial federal funding commitment that could be jeopardized if the Blue Line plan is sent back for reconsideration. “I have great confidence in Inez Evans’ leadership and to the extent that their books have been called into question, I think she’s straightening that out. I have confidence in her and, on a go forward basis, they need to be accountable and appropriately so.”

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