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Lawmaker seeking ‘best value’ for taxpayers’ money

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If state lawmakers decide to give counties the permission to raise income taxes to pay for a mass transit program in central Indiana, one local lawmaker wants to make sure part of that money would go toward widening, improving or building new roads in Johnson County.

State legislators still are trying to pin down how much money an income tax increase would raise and how much it would cost to implement a transit program that includes increasing bus service and starting new rapid transit bus lines.

Sen. Brent Waltz, a Republican who represents part of White River Township and southern Marion County, proposed new ideas this summer because he thinks the current plans don’t give taxpayers the best value for an estimated $1.3 billion investment during the next 10 years. His plans include setting aside some of the new tax money for local road improvement projects, establishing rapid-transit bus service and revamping the current IndyGo bus service.

Those ideas have already met some initial pushback from fellow lawmakers, but lawmakers can’t evaluate the ideas until they have a better understanding of new tax revenue and estimated costs, said Sen. Pat Miller, who is leading the committee studying the mass transit plan and represents southeast Marion County.

State lawmakers had discussed allowing voters to decide whether to pay a 0.3 percent income tax to fund transit improvements in central Indiana. That tax means a person would pay an extra $3 out of every $1,000 they earn for transit. Johnson County residents currently pay 1 percent of their paycheck in income taxes.

The current plan would cost about $1.3 billion to buy new buses, build bus stations and make infrastructure improvements in the first 10 years, then cost about $136 million each year to operate the extra bus routes, according to the IndyConnect transit planning group.

Waltz started reviewing the mass transit plans because of concerns about the cost of building light rail lines from Indianapolis to Hamilton County. New rail lines aren’t being considered now, and Waltz wants lawmakers to ban light rail development because of its costs.

He thinks tax money could be spent more efficiently by focusing on road improvements and retooling the bus service by changing routes and buying smaller buses, instead of just doubling the number of buses running.

“The worst thing could be and would be that we just throw money at this problem. We don’t solve the problem and create new problems and then have to spend more money to solve those,” Waltz said.

One main focus of Waltz’s ideas is to use the tax money to help counties, cities and towns fund road projects that would improve transportation locally and not just specifically on main commuter routes from Indianapolis to the suburbs. Waltz would want some of the new tax dollars to be collected and kept locally for projects.

For example, if Johnson County wanted to start a large project to widen County Line Road into a new east-west corridor from State Road 37 to Interstate 65, the county could submit the project to the regional mass transit planning group and, if approved, use the new tax funds to start construction.

That plan would give Johnson County residents more transportation benefits than paying taxes to run more buses in downtown Indianapolis or north side suburbs.

“Depending on how some of the local road money would be spent, I think it would make sense for the local government to make those decisions,” Waltz said.

Rep. John Price, who also is on the study committee and represents parts of Morgan and Johnson counties, voted for the mass transit bill earlier this year because the tax increase would need to be voted on by each county.

He sees some advantages to Waltz’s ideas, especially a way to set aside some of the tax dollars for local projects so Johnson County residents wouldn’t be paying for projects that only benefit other areas, such as Hamilton County.

Waltz also would like to start over with the IndyGo bus service and study where routes should run, how often and include smaller buses that would run during off-peak times. He also supports the idea to establish rapid-transit bus lines from suburban communities to downtown, he said.

His ideas have many similarities to what already has been proposed by IndyConnect, such as rapid transit bus lines, said Christine Altman, president of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority board.

The IndyConnect plan doesn’t focus as much on funding road improvements as Waltz suggests, because the Indiana Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Planning Organization already are working to identify and improve routes that will benefit regionwide travel, she said.

New ideas from local officials, including Waltz and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, are being considered, but nothing has been decided yet because the committee still needs more information about new taxes and costs.

Concerns about funding and costs for light rail services are why state senators wanted to study the topic more after the Indiana House approved the transit bill this spring, Miller said.

Those concerns haven’t been adequately addressed yet, Miller said.

“If there is going to be additional revenue, where would it come from, and that’s the issue that’s going to make or break mass transit. Local units of governments would not come to the General Assembly if there was not a money issue. I know there is pushback on the income tax and generally legislators don’t like voting for tax increases,” Miller said.

The committee will continue to meet this fall and will have to make a recommendation on how to proceed with mass transit by mid-December, Miller said. Those recommendations and any changes from last year’s plan will help shape a new mass transit bill that would be considered by lawmakers in January.

If approved during the upcoming session, voters could be casting ballots by November 2014 to decide whether to approve the tax increase to fund transit improvements.

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