IN: Indy Mass Transit Bill Gets Green Light From Committee

Jan. 29--A state Senate committee approved a bill Tuesday that would allow for an expanded mass transit system in Central Indiana, but not without protests from Democrats and some business groups.

The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee voted 8-4 in favor of Senate Bill 176 after about an hour of testimony and an amendment that, among other things, would prevent light rail from being part of the expansion.

The measure now moves to the full Senate.

The bill, as originally proposed by Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, would allow five counties -- Marion, Hamilton, Johnson, Delaware and Madison -- to raise income and business taxes to pay for public transportation.

It also would require the voters in those counties to approve the plans, and would require that fares cover 25 percent of the system's operating costs.

Decisions about what type of transit system to build would be left to each county.

But at the start of Tuesday's hearing -- the transit bill's first of 2014 -- Republican committee members voted to change the measure.

An amendment brought forward by committee Chairman Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, adds Hancock County to list of eligible counties, bans light rail, and prevents state funds from being used for any expansion. It also authorizes the Indiana Finance Authority to issue bonds on behalf of counties and strips organized labor of the ability to engage in binding arbitration.

Those changes outraged the committee's four Democrats, who accused their GOP colleagues of helping Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard do an "end run" around the Democrat-controlled city-county council.

"I feel like we've been totally ambushed this morning," said Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, who called the amendment "the proverbial poison pill."

"This just turned my enthusiastic 'yes' into an angry 'no way,' " she said.

Hershman, however, argued the changes would make the project more likely to succeed. Republicans outvoted Democrats 7-3 to amend the bill.

Ballard and Westfield Mayor Andy Cook then testified in favor of the bill, saying it would help solve traffic problems and boost economic development.

"Efficient, convenient and reliable transportation ranks as one of the top priorities of people living in the metropolitan area," Ballard said. "Young professionals now move to the city that appeals to them and they make their life there, unlike my generation, which moved to the job offer. That is a fundamental paradigm-shifting reality for cities, one they ignore at their peril."

Cook asked lawmakers to give local governments the option to address concerns about clogged interstates. Any risk will fall on local, not state, officials, he said.

"This puts the political monkey, if you will, on our local officials' backs," he said.

Still, the hearing exposed some concerns from the business community, which has traditionally supported efforts to expand mass transit. The sticking point: the bill's requirement that taxes on corporations pay for 10 percent of any potential mass transit project's operating costs.

That requirement is tempering the support of some and drawing opposition from others.

The Indiana Chamber said it continues to support the bill, though "with reservation."

The Indiana Manufacturers Association, however, is opposing the measure. The group fears other counties around the state will also seek permission to use corporate income taxes to fund mass transit projects.

"We think this opens a Pandora's box," he said.

Hershman, however, argued that the business community, which has pushed for mass transit for years, should have "some skin in the game."

Previous mass transit proposals have failed to find a majority of legislative support in recent years, but this new proposal comes after a House-Senate summer study committee endorsed the need for an expanded transit system.

Community, religious and business leaders have been lobbying the legislature to approve a funding plan to expand mass transit for several years, arguing improved service would reduce traffic congestion, provide access to jobs, boost economic development and ease commutes.

Critics, though, have argued that the entire community should not be forced to shoulder the cost of a system that would benefit only a few.

Chase Downham of anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity reiterated that argument Tuesday. The bill would allow the five counties in the original measure to raise taxes by up to $125 million a year, he said.

"This legislation is almost a tax increase in search of a mass transit proposal to fund," he said.

After the vote, members of IndyCan, a faith-based group of mass transit advocates, celebrated in the hallway outside the hearing.

David Thomas, a 61-year-old Eastside resident, said his sister was giving him a ride to work in Plainfield until her car broke down, resulting in him losing his job.

"I was very surprised and happy," he said after the vote.

Call Star reporter Tony Cook at (317) 444-6081. Follow him on Twitter @indystartony.

Copyright 2014 - The Indianapolis Star

Loading