A scaled-back transit bill is moving through the Indiana General Assembly but could hit roadblocks if the House and Senate can't work out differences.
"(Mass transit) is vitally important to the future growth of the city," said Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, the House sponsor of a proposal to let voters in seven counties decide on a local tax hike to pay for better bus service.
Torr is confident the bill eventually will win House approval, but he expressed concerns whether both chambers can agree on a plan to send to the governor.
"The question is whether we can get it in a form the Senate can concur on or if we will have to go to conference committee," he said.
Success in the Statehouse is the first part of the battle for Torr and other supporters. Eventually, they will have to convince voters — particularly rural residents least likely to ride buses — that mass transit is worth a tax increase.
Senate Bill 176 passed the Senate earlier this month, 28-20. On Feb. 13, the House Roads and Transportation Committee made some changes and approved it 11-1.
The Senate version allows a voter referendum for mass transit funding in Delaware, Hamilton, Hancock, Johnson, Madison and Marion counties.
The House committee added Hendricks County, removed a requirement that a tax on businesses be used to fund 10 percent of the new public transit costs and removed language requiring service be made available to "all citizens" of a county.
The bill is scheduled for a hearing Monday in the House Ways and Means Committee, where it could see more changes. If approved, it goes to the House floor, which last year passed a more comprehensive measure.
Last year's 10-year, $1.3 billion plan to build bus and commuter train systems in Marion and Hamilton counties derailed in the Senate. That bill required voters to approve a 0.3 percent income tax hike.
The Senate sent the bill to a summer study committee, where Torr said lawmakers compromised and created the transit bill framework now being debated.
"The bill we have is scaled back considerably from what passed out of the House last year," he said.
This year's transit bill improves bus service and builds dedicated bus lanes on existing roads but prohibits light rail.
The upfront costs are not specified. Torr said the the bill lets counties hold a referendum to increase income taxes up to 0.25 percent and build a system they can afford.
The tax would raise $4.5 million in Delaware County, $29 million in Hamilton, $4.5 million in Hancock, $9 million in Johnson, $5 million in Madison and $45 million in Marion, according to a Feb. 4 fiscal note prepared by the Legislative Services Agency.
Hendricks County, the recent addition to the bill, was not included in the fiscal note.
One of the most vocal opponents, the Indiana Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, says the transit bill could add $125 million in new taxes in the affected counties.
In testimony last month before the Senate's Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee, the group's director, Chase Downham, called the funding scheme very unclear and said the bill "ultimately punishes taxpayers of all stripes."
"At the end of the day," Downham testified, "it seems this legislation is simply a tax increase in search of a mass transit proposal."
The bill has supporters, including Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who has repeatedly called for improving mass transit.
Madison County Commissioner Steffanie Owens said mass transit boosts economic development and opportunity in the communities it connects.
"All the places I've been to where there is public transportation, I use it," she said. "It just opens opportunities up to everybody."
Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said the lawmakers' compromise that eliminated commuter trains was shortsighted.
"That's micromanagement from the state legislature," he said. "The best transportation systems include a mix of bus, rail, highways and bike lanes."
Brainard and Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers say improving public transportation would help bring new businesses and jobs to communities.
"The public needs the right to vote yes or no," Myers said.
Investing in public transportation will pay off in growth, Brainard said.
"Almost all these people that we talk with ask about public transit," he said. "They want to know how their lower paid employees will get to work, how much time will be spent sitting in traffic."
The lack of a good bus system is not a deal breaker, Myers agreed, but companies often consider mass transit among other factors before investing in Greenwood.
"We know that there are a lot of unemployed people in Marion County who need to get to Johnson County for jobs and vice versa," Myers said. "I can't say (the lack of a good transit system) has hurt, but it has been a topical question."
If the bill passes, Hendricks County Commissioner Phyllis A. Palmer said the question of funding ultimately could come to a showdown between rural and urban voters.
City dwellers tend to support new taxes for buses while the country folk tend to oppose the spending, Palmer said.
"The large part of our county is rural," he said. "Those people wouldn't be willing to pay a tax that would be used for transit for a few on the east side of the county."
If Hendricks County remains in the final bill and it becomes law, Palmer doubts that a referendum would win approval in her community.
"An added tax is never a popular thing," she said. "There would be an awful lot of people in Hendricks County that wouldn't be in favor of it because they wouldn't use it."
Call Star reporter Vic Ryckaert at (317) 444-2701. Follow him on Twitter: @VicRyc.
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