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Mayors Back Mass Transit Plan In Central Indiana

Mayors around the state say a mass transit plan in Central Indiana could increase the taxing authority of local governmental bodies.

  • Train switches

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    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski/WFIU-WTIU News

    Train switches at a Terre Haute facility.

  • Train crossing gates

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    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski/WFIU-WTIU News

    Train crossing gates in Terre Haute.

  • Train yard at 19th and Margaret

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    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski/WFIU-WTIU News

    A train yard at 19th and Margaret in Terre Haute.

Mayors in many Indiana cities are backing a plan to develop a mass transit system in Marion and Hamilton Counties.

The project could come before the Indiana General Assembly this session, but the goal is not just creating more buses and trains. Mayors from outside Central Indiana are backing the plan as a gambit they think may help their own city budgets.

How Mass Transit Could Help Town Budgets

The push for more mass transit starts and ends with taxes. What set the wheels in motion were the state’s property tax caps, which shrunk revenue for most municipalities. In the Hamilton County city of Westfield. Mayor Andy Cook says it did not hurt the budget so much as it laid bare the city had too much residential property and not enough business investment.

“Carmel’s tax mixture is how to do it,” he says. “Westfield’s was how NOT to do it.  What you’re driving in the middle of is a huge project to correct that imbalance.”

Driving through a large field on the north end of the city, Cook points to the first stages of what’s known as Grand Park. It will be one of the nation’s largest sportsplexes in a couple years.  Now it’s gravel roads which crunch underneath the car and a mile and a half of flattened land being carved into the gentle curve of what will be eventually be outfield walls of softball and baseball diamonds.

Westfield is spending $45 million to build Grand Park, betting its economic future on the venture, really, and now what Cook needs is a way to move people between the project and Indianapolis so he can tap into the nation’s $7 billion a year travel sports industry.

“We want people to come and be able to park their cars and use bicycles, golf carts, hopefully transit, to visit not only Westfield, Hamilton County, but also Indianapolis,” Cook says.

Cook is one of the leaders of a push The Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, or IACT, will make to lawmakers this legislative session to secure as much as a $1.5 billion to extend bus and train lines from downtown Indianapolis into the eight “donut” counties that surround it, starting with Hamilton.

“Our ability to compete in the nation from a long-term economic situation is going to be dependent on some form of transit, because all of our competition does,” Cook says.

But the buses and trains in IACT’s plan carry more than just people. They carry with them the hope other mayors will be able to raise cash in much the same way Hamilton County cities hope to.

Finding A Best-Fit Plan

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett is backing the Hamilton County plan, but his needs look different. There’s an intersection on the south side of Terre Haute near 19th and Margaret where 60 trains a day pass through, many of them stopping for long periods of time.

In fact, it happens as the mayor tries to explain why he wants the legislature to back the plan.

“I want them to really think through what the ramifications of these things are,” he says.

By the time the train begins to slow down, a minor traffic jam has developed. Bennett explains how they get around the problem.

“This train’s moving to the north right now and it’s moving very slowly, and so they will head south, and then they’ll watch. They’ll hit each crossroad that they can see,” he says. “If the track’s clear, they’ll shoot across. Then they’ll come back north again and so they gotta head south to come north.”

Bennett wants to build a $20 million overpass at 19th and Margaret to alleviate the problem, but  doesn’t think he can find the money without additional taxing power  from the Indiana General Assembly.

“Our pool of money that we get every year through the MVH, through the gas tax, and through our local wheel tax continues to shrink,” he says. “And so to fund projects like this is nearly impossible.”

Mass Transit And Taxing Authority

Counties currently levy most discretionary taxes. Mayors and city councils can levy very few.

Bennett hopes if Hamilton County gets its transit system, lawmakers in Indianapolis will not be able to refuse the same taxing authority to mayors around the state which may have to be granted in Central Indiana to complete such an ambitious plan. But lawmakers like Dan Leonard, who is the chair of the Local Government subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, the committee which writes the state budget, are still skeptical.

Leonard thinks counties have enough taxing power already.

“Innkeeper’s tax, you have additional sales tax, you have food and beverage taxes, different wheel taxes over and above the property taxes,” Leonard says. “We’ve put in LOITs – a lot of counties haven’t even touched Local Option Income Taxes.”

And so the push for transit in Central Indiana comes back around to taxes.  Conservative lawmakers who dominate both houses of the legislature have not been supporting of mass transit in the past and many ran on holding the line on tax increases.

If those trends continue, not as many buses will deliver soccer teams to Westfield and trains in Terre Haute may continue to hinder travel instead of speed it up.

Central Indiana Transit Plan by Indiana Public Media News

Stan Jastrzebski

WFIU/WTIU News Senior Editor Stan Jastrzebski spent time as a reporter with WGN Radio in Chicago and as an editor at Network Indiana, an Indianapolis news service. Stan is the winner of awards from the Associated Press, the RTDNA, the Indiana Broadcasters Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. He hosts WFIU's Ask the Mayor and anchors WTIU's InFocus.

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