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Will county ride along on mass transit?

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As soon as this fall, local residents could get the chance to choose if they want to pay for fast-moving buses into downtown and other central Indiana communities, but whether that question will be on your ballot hasn’t been decided.

A new state law gives six counties the option to let voters decide at the ballot box if they want to create a mass transit system, which would likely be an express bus route with minimal stops initially reaching the Greenwood area. The mass transit system would cost

taxpayers, on average, an extra $107 a year in income tax.

The county council will get the first opportunity to put the question on the ballot. If the council chooses not to, three township boards representing the northern third of the county will have that opportunity.

Residents in Johnson, Delaware, Hamilton, Hancock, Madison and Marion counties will have the option of voting for a mass transit system, if their respective county council chooses to put that question on the ballot. Hamilton County officials have said they doubt a question would be on the ballot there until 2016, while officials in Marion County have no specific timeline.

Johnson County Council members will have to act quickly for the mass transit question to be on November’s ballot. Putting a question on the ballot would require multiple steps, including being approved by the Department of Local Government Finance. The deadline to do so for the general election this fall is Aug. 1. But so far, county council members are undecided on whether the issue should go to a referendum.

Mass transit could still end up in portions of Johnson County, even if the council does not put the question on the ballot or if residents vote down the idea in a countywide election. Three township boards — Clark, Pleasant and White River — could choose to have residents in their area vote on mass transit because they border Marion County, which already has mass transit. Those township boards consist of three people and don’t meet on a regular basis. Outside of budget meetings, the White River Township Board meets only when necessary, Trustee Mark Messick said.

Johnson County Council members are in favor of allowing voters to have their say on the mass transit idea, but none has committed to putting the issue on the ballot without knowing more on the financial impact. The new state law requires the amount of money collected from fares to equal 25 percent of the expenses of the mass transit system. Another 10 percent has to come from business partnerships, such as selling advertising on the buses.

If the county doesn’t raise those amounts, taxpayers are responsible for the difference.

‘A losing project’

County council president Beth Boyce wants to make sure the county council could pay for any additional expenses if needed, such any extra funds needed to meet the 10 percent requirement for business partnerships, before deciding whether to put the question on the ballot.

“As a whole, I think mass transit is a great entity when necessary,” council member Loren Snyder said. “I would want to see a feasibility study to show what type of demand there is. It’s been proven time and time again that mass transit would not make money. It’s another thing that would be a losing project, and that’s a concern.”

The county can raise the income tax level anywhere from 0.1 to 0.25 percentage point in order to pay for mass transit. On average, residents would pay an extra $107 per year if that rate were maxed out, which would bring in about $9.16 million in 2015, according to a fiscal impact statement from the Indiana Legislative Services Agency.

Council member Anita Knowles questioned why all residents should pay an equal percentage for mass transit if the system might not reach all corners of the county. She would want to know if, or when, the system would reach Franklin or farther south before putting the question on the ballot.

A proposal created by Indy Connect, a group that promotes the use of mass transit in central Indiana, could be used as the guideline if mass transit is approved by voters. Its plan outlines a potential first phase of mass transit, which would have a bus line travel into Greenwood on U.S. 31 and go as far south as Smith Valley Road. A separate transit line would make shorter circles in the Greenwood and Southport areas.

‘A thing of the future’

If mass transit were approved in Johnson County, it would likely be buses that would stop sparingly.

 IndyGo, a public bus system in Indianapolis, currently has a route that crosses County Line Road and travels to Greenwood Park Mall. With stops every few blocks, the current ride time to Indianapolis is about 30 minutes. A mass transit bus would cut the ride time by about 10 minutes, Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers said.

Myers said he would consider approaching the county council in order to gain support for putting a question on the ballot but has not made any specific plans to approach the council.

“I fully support allowing the citizens to have the right to vote for (mass transit),” Myers said. “But when you look at it, look toward the future generations. Younger people are now more eco-friendly and looking for a way to save money. I think mass transit is going to be a thing of the future.”

Currently, council member Pete Ketchum would vote to put the mass transit issue on the ballot only if he felt a majority of people in his district wanted that. Ketchum plans to talk with residents in his district to gauge their interest in having a mass transit question on the ballot.

Messick said mass transit could benefit his area in northwestern Johnson County, where numerous apartment complexes are located.

“If there were a way to get downtown without the parking fees or gas that costs $4 a gallon, I think there would be some interest,” Messick said.

But he said selling enough residents in White River Township on the idea of mass transit in exchange for a tax increase would not be easy.

“For years this area has not supported any type of tax increase,” he said. “When they were talking about reorganizing between Greenwood and White River Township, the biggest outcry you heard was not about the services. The biggest outcry was about how much is it going to cost us.”

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