State lawmakers scuttling transit projects

Indiana Statehouse (image source: me)
Indiana Statehouse (image source: me)

What started as a squeak in November has turned into a low roar. What is this low roar? The dying gasp of transit projects across the nation. In case you have not noticed, there is a bit of political turmoil going on here in America. It seems that no one is immune to the affects of the recent election. Regarding transportation, the problems started when NJ Governor cancelled the ARC project that would have increased commuter train access into NYC. Then, Wisconsin and Ohio’s new GOP Governors rejected Federal funding that was awarded to the previous administration for High Speed Rail. Florida’s Governor also recently turned down over $2 billion in federal dollars for a true HSR that would have connected Tampa and Orlando despite repeated assurances that the state would not be on the hook for ANY cost overruns. The Florida case truly defies logic in that private companies were assembling bids for constructing and operating, at their expense, the balance of said line. I also read a column out of Cincinnati last night, that their new GOP Governor is rumored to be deciding on cutting nearly $50 million in previously committed state funds to the streetcar project there which is set to break ground any day now; a project that it’s state DOT deems one of it’s potentially highest return on investment.

What do all of these cancellations have in common? They were cancelled by GOP lawmakers bent on balancing their state budgets which are in the red or forecasted to be in the near future. Any Democrat, Libertarian or Independent can get on board with that. However, when budget balancing becomes the priority, why are transit projects always the first to get the axe? In Cincinnati, there was a recent “finding” of nearly $800 million for the extension of I-74 across the east side hinterland of the metro area. Why isn’t this being axed? Wisconsin has billions still in the budget for freeway expansion. Why hasn’t that been cut? I even read a ridiculous claim out of Chicago where suburbanites are fighting amongst themselves about sidewalks in their neighborhood where one person went as far as to claim that the concrete lobby is advocating for this. Really?? Here at home, US31 is slated to become a freeway north of 465 in the very near future. I-69 is currently underway despite funding shortages.  Neither of those have been put on the back burner for the state’s bottom line.

Furthermore,at the local level, our House of Representatives have passed the next state budget out of committee with an 18% cut in transit funding. An amendment has been authored to restore this funding but will not be resolved until Democrat representatives end their standoff and return to finish business for this session. This is another truly puzzling case particularly since House Ways & Means Chairman Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale) recently stated on WRTV-6 local news, that he regards transit funding as a local issue,  “Local transportation is really a local responsibility.” I find that ironic since he has not given HB1372 a proper listening which would give local lawmakers the tools with which to solve said local transportation issues.

There is also some rhetoric being thrown about by conservatives that paints the recent explosion of public transit, bicycle and pedestrian improvements and “livability” legislative action as a UN ploy to socialize America. These are based on unfounded claims and really serve to enflame the issue beyond the economics and real person benefits that can be realized by simply offering an equal outlay of potential transportation choices. As the 2010 census results roll in, it has become obvious that cities and neighborhoods who have invested in these improvements are now enjoying the rewards of their hardwork.

Finally, when I look at the current climate, I see state controlled highway projects getting priority over all others and being placed close to the sacred cow as defense spending is. IE: it rarely gets cut when budget balancing occurs. For transit activists, this should serve as a red light when lawmakers suggest that the Federal government should be giving transportation tax dollars straight back to the states to spend as they see fit; an argument I stood up against in front of Congressman Todd Rokita (R-4th District) at the recent surface transportation hearing in Indianapolis.

For those of you who keep up with the topics described above on the national level, this is all old news. For you local readers, I hope that this has informed you a little bit about what is going on around the country.

Comments 12

  • “Americans are not willing to pay for the government that they want.”

    — Mark Shields quoting Geoff Garin on the PBS Newshour last week

  • Yup. Nothing new. For mass transit to happen in Indy, it will take a grassroots initiative. Someone, somewhere will start a “Downtown to Broad Ripple Streetcar Citizen’s Initiative (or Fund?)”, and get local residents involved first. Then you will see some local forward-minded businesses jumping on board, and then we might get their (politicans’) attention…But it won’t come from top down, it will have to happen the other way around.

    • “But it won’t come from top down, it will have to happen the other way around. ”

      As it should be.

    • Seriously? You guys think The Cultural Trail or the Greenways/Trails system happened because of a grassroots initiative?
      Nope. It took a connected champion in each case. Greenways’ champion was Ray Irvin, a city-county councilor who later became director of the greenways program. The Cultural Trail was the brainchild and creation of Brian Payne, who in his position as head of Central Indiana Community Foundation was in the perfect position to rope in supporters and funders.
      The most likely champions for mass transit will be forward-thinking and well-connected members of the Indianapolis establishment. Remember, it was Mark Miles who initially pushed IndyConnect forward.

      • Chris: re: Indy Greenways and grassroots vs. institutional impetus: I’d like to offer a historical perspective.

        Mayor Dick Lugar formed the Mayor’s Bicycle Task Force in the early 70s to bring together bike advocates with reps from every City department. I joined that group in the late 70s and one of the tasks we undertook with CIty support was the creation of a Bicycle User Map – not a new concept since the first Bicycle map for the city appeared in 1899!,60

        Our map identified key corridors suitable for cycling and warned of unsuitable streets as a way of promoting cycling for transportation, not just recreation. We also crafted a route that connected major city parks throughout the county for which the City erected signs. With CIBA’s help we sponsored bike rides to promote the concept of linking parks via bikes – the foundational concept for what eventually became the Indy Greenways network.

        Fast forward to the mid-80s when a group of Broad Ripple small business owners and employees began pushing the City to acquire the Monon ROW for conversion into a linear park. Tom McCain (now involved w/ the fantastic Pedal n Park program) wrote a letter to the editor supporting the concept but before mailing it decided to share it with some friends to see if they wanted to co-sign. This morphed into a petition drive that in time garnered 20,000 signatures through a massive volunteer outreach program that included a slide show, presentations to neighborhood & civic groups and meetings w/ City officials. This ad hoc group formalized its efforts in 1987 by founding the Hoosier Rails-to-Trails Council which is still successfully promoting the concept throughout the state.

        HRTC convinced the City that there was indeed sufficient public support to undertake the legal wrangling to determine ROW that preceded acquiring the property and then building what is arguably the most successful public works initiative in the City’s history. Ray Irwin played his part, for sure, but honestly, we’re still cleaning up some of the mess he left behind and repairing some of the relationships he sundered.

        Make no mistake, the grassroots citizen effort to convince elected officials to acquire the ROW was absolutely essential to the success of the Monon and the establishment of the Indy Greenways network. (As an aside, I should also add that MBTF lobbied for years for such initiatives as the Canal Towpath, Michigan Ave bike lanes, cops on bikes, showers & bike lockers at government buildings, bike-friendly sewer grates, taking bikes into account in neighborhood planning and bike racks on public transit. Some seeds take longer than others to germinate, but you guarantee no germination if you don’t sow.)

        There are moments when this City works marvelously well and the Monon Trail is proof that the impossible can happen and the “Indianapolis establishment” can be moved to act when diverse constituencies join forces to propel a united vision into action for the community’s benefit. IndyConnect was a missed opportunity IMO as it suffered a fatal loss of nerve when the time came to support the public’s overwhelming support for light rail first rather than commuter rail and to get the General Assembly to support a referendum.

        Regarding transit, I submit we have a template for successful, effective citizen action in the Monon story and can use it in the service of other public infrastructure projects.

        Why not consider connecting Broad Ripple Village w/ Carmel first? Mayor Brainard & Carmel’s MPO have identified College Ave. as the light rail route of choice rather than Keystone. That could be the first leg of what eventually could extend south to Fountain Square.

        In any event, success will require a committed citizenry, advocates from the business community and an elected official (preferably officials) transit champion to accomplish this massive undertaking.

        • Tom, thanks for the history lesson. I understand that grassroots organizing and education is necessary for public transit improvement to move forward. But it’s not sufficient, and that was my (apparently too-abbreviated) point.
          Unless and until a prominent civic leader or elected official puts his/her civic or electoral capital on the table for an initiative, it doesn’t happen. Proof is in the converse: most significant civic investment happens in this city without 20,000 signatures on a petition; a couple billion dollars’ worth of stadiums, malls, museums, WRSP, canal redevelopment and convention center is proof. Even with those 20,000 signatures Indy Greenways didn’t happen without elected officials, including Mayor Goldsmith, on board. It’s not as if he or the council feared that they would lose re-election without it. It’s that the case was so compelling and obvious that they couldn’t say no.
          Mayor Brainard may be right for Carmel in advocating for College Ave. but that’s as wrong as can be for Indianapolis. Outside of 86th & College, the corridor is exclusively residential north of Broad Ripple. (Even more to the point: It runs through Williams Creek, which would never allow dense commercial or residential development.) Keystone, on the other hand, is almost all commercial and denser residential from Glendale to Keystone Square, with significant employment and activity centers at Glendale, Keystone Crossing, and Keystone Square.
          Transit has to connect (network) people to activity, not just form a line from houses to offices. College Ave. rail would be just another suburban commuter line.

  • Just got to hold out until gas prices soar. Gas prices will be key.

  • I’m all for supporting a Broad Ripple to Downtown Fund. Something positive/interesting needs to happen to compliment the Monon and Cultural Trails.

  • “‘Local transportation is really a local responsibility.’ I find that ironic since he has not given HB1372 a proper listening which would give local lawmakers the tools with which to solve said local transportation issues.”

    Ironic indeed. And although a “champion from the establishment” often gets the issue through the door, even certain champions are coming around to the fact that it is going to take a groundswell of grassroots support for the issue of transit to reach critical mass. Legislators tell us all the time that supporting improved transit isn’t a priority because they don’t hear about it from their constituents.

    In other words – contact your legislators! Tell them to support Amendment 1 to the Budget Bill (to restore funding to the PMTF) and HB1372 when the time comes. And join the Indiana Citizens’ Alliance for Transit ( to contribute to an organized advocacy effort to improve and expand transit in communities across the state.

  • I emailed my rep last week about Amendment one and HB1372 specifically. I hope that once we get the engine running again, there will be some dialogue regarding both items.

  • I don’t want to oversimplify the issue, but the argument against mass transit often boils down to “who is going to cover the operating cost (in excess of revenue)?” This totally ignores all the other benefits that such an investment would create (and the fact that we subsidize driving), but even if we focus on just that issue, this is something that can be attacked. I think there are individuals and businesses that would be interested in creating an endowment that would cover those operating costs in the long run. So, in my mind, a grassroot inititiave would have to identify all the stakeholders (people and organizations that would most benefit), raise awareness, but also raise money.

  • It is easy to get a greenway or cultural trail set up my a large influence of one person, but I cannot imagine how large of a city-wide effort it will take to get a high quality bus system in Indy. Getting the single rail line in may not be too difficult, but it will most likely flop without a successful network of busses.

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