The Magazine

Railroad to Ruin?

Indiana’s new governor faces a mass-transit decision.

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By RYAN LOVELACE
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Fiscally conservative governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida have rejected billions of dollars in subsidies for the growth of high-speed rail and new public transportation projects in their states in recent years. Indiana’s new Republican governor, Mike Pence, may have the opportunity to make a similar decision in his first year on the job.

Gov. Mike Pence

But rejecting a proposed multibillion-dollar overhaul of central Indiana’s public transportation system may prove difficult, given local support of the plan. Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard, also a Republican, endorsed the Indy Connect Now plan at a November 15, 2012, press conference.

“World-class cities provide their residents with world-class infrastructure that helps them achieve success,” Ballard said. “We can no longer accept being the 12th-largest city in the country with a bus system that ranks 89th in the nation.”

Indy Connect Now, a partnership of private and public officials who developed the plan, launched a promotional campaign featuring local television and radio ads earlier this year. The plan has received more than 8,000 petition signatures, 4,000 Facebook likes, and endorsements from dozens of local and statewide groups. 

So Pence and Republicans in the Indiana general assembly will likely face harsh criticism if they turn down the proposal. Approving the proposal, however, could also bring public scrutiny, and Pence and fellow Republicans might lose support from fiscal conservatives.

The plan would cost approximately $2.3 billion over 25 years, according to Ehren Bingaman, the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority (CIRTA) executive director. During the first 10 years, $1.3 billion would be spent to build bus and rail infrastructure, including a 22-mile light-rail transit system connecting downtown Indianapolis with its wealthy northern suburbs. The completed public transit system would require $136 million to operate every year thereafter. The eventual price could well be much higher, as Bingaman said these calculations were made using the 2010 value of the dollar.

A combination of federal, state, and local money and transit fares is expected to fund the plan, with local funding coming from a proposed 0.3 percent income tax rate increase.

If the Indiana general assembly passes the bill and Pence signs it into law, officials in the counties that would pay the higher income tax would have a referendum on the surtax on their local ballots in November. If approved by voters, construction would begin in 2014.

Mayor Ballard wants to move on the plan now so Indianapolis can compete with similar metropolitan areas such as Charlotte, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City for young talent, he said during his endorsement of the plan.

The unanswered question, in the event the state approves funding for Indy Connect Now, is whether Ballard’s “if you build it they will come” approach to mass transit has any chance of succeeding in Indianapolis, or if the project would become a mammoth white elephant. Just 2 percent of workers use public transportation to commute to work in Indianapolis, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More Hoosiers work from home in Indianapolis than use public transit.

Asking Hoosiers to embrace a public transit system similar to the defunct Interurban, a series of electric rail cars that connected Indianapolis with towns throughout Indiana and thrived during the early 20th century, appears to be a longshot. Indianapolis does not have the centralized population that a city such as Chicago does, and the Indy Connect Now plan would not change that.

How Pence responds remains to be seen, but Ron Gifford, the Central Indiana Transit Task Force executive director who has been pushing the plan’s legislative agenda, said he is optimistic that Pence will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Christy Denault, the governor’s spokesman, said in an email, “Mike Pence would certainly give fair hearing to mass transit proposals, including high-speed rail, as long as those proposals were sustainable without on-going support from the state.”

Ryan Lovelace, a student at Butler University, is a contributing reporter to The College Fix and a Weekly Standard intern.

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