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Friday, June 18, 2021

Future of IndyGo projects on uncertain track

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The future of mass transit in Indianapolis hangs in the balance after the House Committee on Roads and Transportation held a hearing on Senate Bill 141 on March 24.

Authored by Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, the bill would require Indiana public transportation entities — namely IndyGo’s planned expansion of the Blue and Purple Lines — to raise a certain level of revenue before receiving local income tax revenue for projects. Currently, state law requires counties to raise 10% of annual operating expenses for projects and 25% of the project funding must come from fares and charges. These funds, Freeman said during debate, haven’t been met by IndyGo.
IndyGo CEO Inez Evans, however, said the company has raised the necessary funds and Freeman and co-authors of the bill are ignoring information from the Legislative Services Agency (LSA).

“The original contention from the author of the bill contended that IndyGo needed to be held accountable to taxpayers to raise 10% of the funding,” Evans told the Recorder. “They went to the LSA to do a financial assessment, and they came back and put a footnote in their review and said IndyGo was in compliance with the statute … but they don’t agree now with the LSA interpretation.”
Freeman said that’s not the case.

“In regards to the change in the fiscal note, as a state senator, I have no involvement in that process,” Freeman said in a statement. “The evaluation of the fiscal impact is done by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. As I understand it, there was a misinterpretation of the law provided by a non-lawyer, and it has since been rectified, resulting in the revised fiscal note.”

According to the fiscal note on the bill, IndyGo in 2019 was required to raise 25% of Red Line operating expenses from fares. However, the fare revenue is not specific to Red Line riders, meaning any fare revenue IndyGo receives was counted toward the 25% requirement, and financial analyst Bill Brumbach concluded fare revenue from IndyGo satisfied that requirement.

During the House committee hearing, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, raised concerns that the Blue Line, which would cut through the west side of the city, would impact traffic flow due to designated lanes for buses. He introduced an amendment that would prohibit IndyGo from creating designated lanes, which would reduce the number of lanes available to drivers on both Washington Street and 10th Street.

During testimony Evans said the need for designated lanes is twofold.

First, the federal grants received for the Blue Line were designated for a fixed guideway project, which has five components necessary, including designated lanes. If the bill passes with the amendment prohibiting designated lanes, IndyGo communications director Lesley Gordon said the company would lose the money it’s already spent on the project. If the company decided to go forward with the project without designated lanes, IndyGo would have to apply for grants for corridor projects, which do not require designated lanes and are more competitive. Further, Evans said fixed guideway projects have long-term benefits for the whole community, not just IndyGo riders.

One of those benefits is revamped and safer streets.

As part of the Blue and Purple lines, the former expected to cost $200 million and the latter $168 million, Indianapolis streets would be repaved, sidewalks reconstructed and the septic systems updated.

Karlee Macer, former Democratic member of the Indiana House of Representatives, testified against the bill, describing the planned projects as being about more than mass transit.

“Everything is still the same in the community,” Macer said regarding her childhood in Indianapolis. “Same well water, same septic system, some people even use oil to heat their homes 15 minutes from here. This is more than mass transit to our community. This is a generational lifeline.”

Evans views this bill not just as an attack on IndyGo, but as an attack on Indianapolis’ poor and minority communities.

“Of the population IndyGo serves, 70% are persons of color,” Evans said. “When you look at the Purple Line alone, 61% of the population it serves is a minority population, and 30% are low income. The money that’s on the table from the Federal Transit Administration will significantly help bring our infrastructure to a higher standard.”

Freeman said during testimony Marion County can’t afford these expansions, and argued the focus should be on improving roads, not mass transit. However, Evans said the money that’s already been spent on the expansion projects can’t be reimbursed.

“The entire project for the Purple Line is about $168 million with 50% coming from the federal government,” Evans said. “IndyGo has already spent $37 million on the Purple Line in anticipation of getting 50% back. If the bill passes, we don’t get anything. Citizens have paid $37 million and don’t have anything to show for it but 15 buses.”

The bill, which passed in the Senate 32 to 17 on Feb. 23, was held by committee chair Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, after debate went over the allotted time. Pressel now gets to decide if the bill will get another hearing. If a vote isn’t held by April 8, the bill will die. At this point, Pressel said he hasn’t decided if there will be a second hearing.

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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