Last Wednesday’s Indianapolis Star printed a version of this excellent editorial by Central Indiana Transit Task Force co-chair John Neighbours, reacting to news of the fiscal uncertainties swirling around the IndyGo bus system. The dismal state of IndyGo burdens both its users, who find it difficult to get to work or other daily errands due to long delays and inconvenient routes, and also local companies that depend on the bus to bring employees and customers to their places of business.
A more secure source of local funding for the system is certainly necessary; the best solution is a more comprehensive regional system that provides reliable service across the metro area, and is financed and governed accordingly. We believe the Central Indiana Transit Task Force has presented such a plan, summarized here.
(As a side note, I’ll be addressing the need for regional mass transit in my remarks to the Economic Club of Indiana this afternoon.)
Lack of reliable transit impedes economic growth
Erika Smith’s recent reporting on the fiscal plight of IndyGo paints a picture of a woefully under-funded public transit system in crisis. It’s a picture that’s all-too familiar for those who rely on IndyGo on a daily basis.
IndyGo ranks 100th among the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas in transit funding, to serve the 26th-largest metro population, leading to inconvenience and delay. Let’s say you live near 10th and Rural, and want to get to work near the Pyramids (96th Street and Michigan Road) by 8:00am – you’d need to walk to the bus stop around 6am, to begin a one-and-a-half hour trip. The employee of a company at Park 100 on the northwest side who has the misfortunate to live near 46th Street and Arlington would suffer through a two-and-a-half hour commute (each way).
These aren’t unusual scenarios. For those who are dependent on transit, the current system effectively shuts the door on job opportunities and turns simple trips to the grocery store or doctor’s office into painfully-long journeys. For businesses dependent on public transit to connect them to a reliable workforce, IndyGo is a barrier to growth, a drag on economic competitiveness.
There is a better way. In February, the private sector-led Central Indiana Transit Task Force released a comprehensive regional transportation plan that includes a light and commuter rail network, new highway investment and an expanded regional bus system.
While the rail lines capture much of the public attention, it’s the bus system that actually receives the majority of new operating funds in the plan. We don’t just envision fixing IndyGo, but transforming it into a regional system that allows commuters to move easily around Indianapolis and the surrounding counties. The bus network would include more cross-town routes and higher levels of service, cutting wait times and connecting with rail to provide more transportation options for all.
The urgent need to provide adequate bus service is also reflected in the Task Force’s recommendations for public consideration. While rail infrastructure is built over several years, bus improvements would begin immediately – offering tangible benefits right away.
A comprehensive and convenient bus system is the backbone of any successful transit system, and the private sector blueprint prioritizes and invests accordingly. The plan is currently on the table for public comment through the ‘Indy Connect’ campaign of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (offer your own feedback at www.indyconnect.org). Because buses are the closest and most relevant form of transit to much of the region’s population, we expect the agency to receive a large amount of input on how to better serve their riders.
The other major issue is funding. Financing IndyGo through property taxes is a recipe for failure. No one wants higher property taxes; indeed, we believe that mass transit investments can help keep property taxes under control by spurring more residential and commercial development.
The transportation system should be funded by other local options, like small increases in sales or income taxes – funding the entire proposed regional rail and bus system would cost the average family between $10 and $20 a month in new sales taxes, for example. That’s the price of a large pizza in exchange for greater mobility, a more convenient commute, and the other economic and environmental benefits of transit.
The sorry state of IndyGo lends urgency to the broader issue: We need a regional, comprehensive transportation system that includes new mass transit options, like the plan envisioned by the Central Indiana Transit Task Force. It’s time to agree on the approach, find the best way to pay for it, and make it happen.
Neighbours is a partner at Baker & Daniels, serves on the Board of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, and was co-chair of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force.