Questions arise over potential mass transit referendum

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Some Current in Carmel readers have had some questions about the proposed mass transit referendum, so here is my attempt to help answer those from what I’ve learned reporting on this subject.

Why are the township boards and not the county council voting on the mass transit becoming a ballot question?

It was decided only specific townships (Washington and Clay) would be mostly affected since that’s where the Red Line would go through. It’s hard to get Fishers, Noblesville, Sheridan, Arcadia, Cicero or Atlanta to pay for mass transit if it’s not going to be near them.

Can’t they just increase the tax anytime they want?

Under the state law, no. The law was passed by the state legislature stating counties and townships could pass tax referendums at a rate of 25 cents per $100 of income. In order for the tax to be raised, the state legislature would have to pass another law. Presumably, this law would require another voter referendum, unless that was changed as well.

Is there a way around that?

Yes. While this tax couldn’t be raised without the state legislature, a different tax going to the same revenue source could be passed. The county council could vote for an economic development tax to support mass transit, although that could be a tough sell for some city councilors. A majority voted down funds for a fire tower and that conservative majority has shown trepidation on this issue as well. It’s also possible that city councils could vote to appropriate funds to mass transit.

Didn’t we do this before with Indy Express bus? Why didn’t that work?

It was similar but not the same. Some have said that the Indy Express bus was always meant to be for a short time and did not have long-term funding. There was no steady reliable stream of revenue, such as a tax, and so they would keep going to municipalities to ask for money to further the program. Indy Express saw ridership decline from 69,000 riders during its inception in 2008 to 26,000 riders in 2013, according to the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority. Carmel had considerably low numbers, about half of what a similar route in Fishers would bring in, according to CIRTA. Carmel had a small but loyal ridership, but budget cuts led to eliminating routes, and this lead to declines in ridership.

They came to the Carmel City Council in 2014 to ask for $30,000 and were scolded by some councilors that not enough was done to promote the bus and that they had no marketing plan. It was reluctantly passed but when CIRTA needed to come back and ask for more money a few months later, they decided there was such a negative response that it was best to shut down the line. Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said there was insufficient marketing and that the Indy Express needed to, “run more like a business.” County Commissioner Christine Altman said she thinks the problem with IndyExpress is a lack of commitment in terms of public funding. She said it takes time to build up a mass transit system.

Why are some people not in favor of mass transit?

I get this question from those who support the idea of mass transit. They travel across the country and see wonderful examples of well-functioning public transportation in other major cities, many of which are the size of Indianapolis or even smaller. They say business owners are asking for mass transit so they can hire employees. They say it helps bring people out of poverty and it improves our air quality and it helps reduce wear-and-tear on our roads and it reduces traffic jams for motorists.

But the main reason I think some people don’t support mass transit? It hasn’t worked in the past. That’s just a fact.

It hasn’t been that successful. Now we can debate why that is but the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to sell people on an idea when they haven’t seen work. Many would counter that IndyGo has been successful when you consider the small amount of funding they receive.

Opponents say that they are worried about losing parking spaces, clogged turned lanes and muggings at bus stops.

Most of all? Opponents say people won’t use it. In cities like Washington D.C. or New York, people use mass transit because they have no other options. There’s nowhere to park and owning a car is very costly there. Here in Indiana, people love their cars. We are called the Crossroads of America. We’re a major hub for interstate travel throughout the country. Parking isn’t difficult. You might have to pay in downtown Indianapolis or Broad Ripple, but there are free spots everywhere and low cost parking meters. In Carmel, parking is free, even in covered parking garages which is unheard of in many cities.

Our businesses, such as fast food, dry cleaners, pharmacies and banks, often have drive-thru lanes so people can stay in their cars as much as possible. Supporters project about 11,000 riders initially for the Red Line, but detractors think those numbers are highly optimistic.

What are people not understanding about this proposal?

I have heard a few misconceptions.

For one, this month they are voting to put it on the ballot, not approve the tax. The voters still get to decide in November. It’s an income tax and not a property tax. And like I stated earlier, it might not be easy to increase it — at least not right away with the current makeup of county, city and state legislators.

Where can I read the plan for mass transit?

Check it out on the Indy Connect Web site: http://indyconnect.org/the-central-indiana-transit-plan/

Do you think it’ll make it on the ballot?

Yes. Elected officials that I’ve talked to think it’ll be on the ballot. The township boards can easily say, “I’m not voting for the tax. I’m voting to let the voters decide.” Plus many of the local executives, such as trustees and commissioners, have voiced their support.

Do you think it will pass in November?

Actually I do. (Do not misconstrue my prediction as an endorsement or support for one side or another.) But Indiana has a history of voting for tax referendums, such as those that go to our public schools.

Of the 138 ballot questions to raise taxes for schools in Indiana, 72 have passed, which is more than half. And the number goes up in more diverse communities in Indiana, such as Marion County and its donut counties. In the past four years, voters in the U.S. have approved 126 out of 172 tax increases for mass transit. So, referendums have been successful.

In Carmel, Brainard has voiced his support for the idea and he won reelection with 60 percent of the vote. And that was in a Republican primary. While many Democrats switch party lines to vote in our municipal elections, the turnout is very low and some Democrats — and frankly all voters — stay home.

A general election, a hotly contested presidential one at that, will help skew this overwhelmingly Republican city into more liberal waters. I suspect many Democrat voters would vote for mass transit and some (or many depending on your prediction) Republican voters will vote for it as well. For that reason, I predict it will pass.

Also, keep in mind there will be a well-funded media campaign to let people know about the referendum and encourage people to vote for it. I doubt there will be many billboards or mailers encouraging people to vote against.

What public transportation currently exists in Carmel?

Not much. The best option is the Hamilton County Express bus operated by Janus Developmental Services. The bus will come to you and pick you up for a small cost but it doesn’t run continually throughout the day like usual public transportation. For more, visit http://www.janus-inc.org/programs-services/hamilton-county-express.

For more options, check out this Web site: http://www.carmel.in.gov/index.aspx?page=331.

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2 Comments

  1. Very good reporting though I question your suggestion that referendums for schools can be used as a reliable metric for mass transit. They serve two totally separate constituencies and I doubt if more than a handful of parents think we don’t need “better” schools ( regardless of how you define that) but as you correctly noted – mass transit has no proven track record of success and serves a very limited % of the taxed population.
    I agree the township boards will allow it to be on the ballot and even given the volatility of the POTUS election the county remains heavily republican and if there is a huge turnout ( certainly the primary suggests that to be the case) then I doubt people will vote themselves a tax increase to underwrite something they never plan to use.

  2. It would help if the “press” would state the simple facts. 98% of the taxpayers will be paying for 2% of the population’s transportation. Plus, as has been stated before, it didn’t work before, no reason to think it will work this time. Now, if they would stop with all the road construction and expansion, and spend the money on REAL urban transit/light rail, that might be something we could get behind. How about a rail line in the median of 69, instead of more lanes! Frankly, I think if these businesses need more employees at minimum wage, they should either pay for the transportation themselves, or simply not build businesses up north! Didn’t you think about this before you built your fast food restaurant? Have you all noticed, our administrations up here are starting to nickel and dime us on taxes and fees? Every couple of months, it seems like a few new dollars here, and a few new dollars there. And who is benefitting? BTW, how is that drainage issue in the Johnson addition going? So far it doesn’t seem like our tax dollars and “fees” have solved that issue over the last 10 years. We do have some nice statues though 🙂

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