Clear plan, budget needed for South Shore to advance at Statehouse

2014-01-19T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T17:11:20Z Clear plan, budget needed for South Shore to advance at StatehouseBy Dan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
January 19, 2014 12:00 am  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | No single person at the Statehouse is standing in the way of South Shore expansion, because outside the 21-member Northwest Indiana legislative delegation, few of the 129 other state senators and representatives have even heard of it.

Mention "mass transit" under the blue stained-glass rotunda dome and most lawmakers, lobbyists and executive branch officials think of an Indianapolis-area transit proposal that's gone nowhere in the past four years, despite a  local funding plan and strong support from central Indiana businesses.

The 2014 effort, Senate Bill 176, would authorize five central Indiana counties to hold a referendum on whether to raise local income taxes and create a local corporate tax to fund 75 percent of the cost of expanded bus service. The proposal requires 25 percent of service costs come from transit fares.

Even though the legislation only authorizes county referendums, and no new state money would go toward mass transit, the measure remains unlikely to win approval.

However, if South Shore expansion is to gain any traction in the General Assembly, state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee, believes region business and transit interests need to organize as they have in central Indiana.

IndyConnect launched in 2010 after surveys of central Indiana residents and businesses determined there was adequate support for improved mass transit options in and around Marion County.

The organization hosted 125 public meetings and community briefings to help shape a bus and rail transit plan rolled out with great fanfare in late 2010. It spent 2011 working to build support for the plan before asking lawmakers to approve it during the 2012 legislative session.

After failing to pass the proposal through the General Assembly in 2012 and 2013, central Indiana lawmakers settled for a study committee that recommended last summer, over Tea Party objections, the scaled-back proposal likely to be heard by a Senate committee later this month.

Soliday said that  example shows how hard it will be for Northwest Indiana, which isn't nearly as united on South Shore expansion, to move anything through the Legislature.

But Soliday believes the region has an advantage that central Indiana lacks. Namely, most of the people riding the South Shore are going to jobs in Chicago that pay far more than similar Hoosier jobs, and those workers are spending that extra money in Indiana.

"If you can show a return on investment, you may be able to sell it as an investment," Soliday said. "But you're going to have to have a very empirical case, or they're going to see it as Lake County asking for a handout."

Solid plan necessary

State Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, is sympathetic to the investment argument and said he recognizes the need for extra transportation capacity in the region.

"They make an excellent point that if we're going to grow in that area to build some economic activity and population, we need to have consideration of transportation -- the rail line and the rest of it," Brown said.

At the same time, Brown said despite some organizing by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, the region needs to truly work together and agree on a clear plan if it's going to win support from other lawmakers who know little about that corner of the state.

"Indianapolis and the central Indiana transit people have come with a unified voice," Brown said. "It does at times, with Northwest Indiana, get into them disagreeing with the counties and other officials. Some of it is just history, some of it is cultural, but it's a little bit inefficient especially coming to the Legislature."

Soliday echoed that sentiment. He said the often-made argument -- that the state "owes" Northwest Indiana because either the region is different or because decades ago the region contributed to the state far more in tax revenue than it got back -- just won't fly.

"There is no hope on that path," Soliday said. "If you wipe out all the Republicans and put in a Democrat majority, which is probably unlikely but could happen, the D's won't even do it."

For most lawmakers, including state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, expanded mass transit comes down to questions of dollars and cents: Who is paying? How much? For how long?

"I think the public needs to be told the complete program over the next 25 years and the complete cost over the next 25 years, and then make an informed decision through their elected officials in the Legislature and in local government," Delph said.

Even then, Delph said there are other concerns. Specifically, how long the federal government can continue spending money it doesn't have on projects and programs that aren't necessarily vital.

He agrees mass transit is an important issue, but said if it tips the federal government's debt burden further toward rampant inflation, other issues become much more important.

Brown said he will not reopen the 2014-15 state budget lawmakers approved last year, essentially slamming the door on any state funds for South Shore expansion until at least July 2015.

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