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Faith leaders push transit referendum

August 18, 2016 | IndySTAR | Link to Article

For a group of Indianapolis faith leaders, better public transportation means more than adding a few new buses to an old system.

Improved transit is a passage to possibilities for residents of low-income neighborhoods where the last thriving business closed years ago and the nearest gallon of milk is sold 2 miles away.

It means access to better jobs, doctors and groceries.

Those opportunities are why the ministers, priests and pastors in the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCan) have launched a three-month campaign to pass a voter referendum to fund mass transit improvements in Marion County. The coalition insists a bus service that runs frequently and dependably will allow residents in poor neighborhoods to get to good-paying jobs they can't reach now,

"A lack of transportation options means a lack of opportunity for people living in those under-served communities," said Nicole Barnes, operations manager for IndyCan, which is composed of more than 30 congregations from several Christian denominations. "There are countless stories of people who could have had a job but had no way to get there."

Volunteers for IndyCan will be working phone banks four nights a week until Election Day, Nov. 8, calling registered minority voters in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. They will encourage the voters to back the ballot measure to raise income taxes by 0.25 percent, or 25 cents per $100, to raise $56 million per year for IndyGo, the city bus service.

The extra tax dollars would permit IndyGo to run buses earlier in the morning, later at night and more frequently, and would help pay for the electric bus rapid transit Red Line.

"Having a bus system that you know you can depend on is crucial for people with no other transportation options, but it also makes it more useful for everyone," said Sean Northup, assistant director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

It's not just workers who say they need better bus service; businesses have been clamoring for it, too. The Indy Chamber, which represents 2,500 businesses, plans to fund a publicity campaign urging passage of the referendum. Several City-County Council members and neighborhood organizations also support it.

"A lot of employers say they have trouble getting people to work," Northup said. Getting workers to their jobs easily reduces employee turnover, which, in turn, reduces a company's cost, he said.

But the referendum has opponents, including some on the council. In addition, Hamilton and Johnson counties recently decided against putting their own transit funding referendums on the ballot. And a group of north-side citizens, with the support of some businesses, has launched a petition drive against the Red Line, contending it would disrupt traffic and commerce and is unnecessary.

But IndyCan volunteer Alpha Whitaker, 48, said she knows firsthand how important public transit is for job seekers in low-income areas.

Fifteen years ago, Whitaker had to turn down a full-time, high-paying accounting department job with full benefits at a medical office in Carmel because she had no means to get there.

"I wanted the job badly, and they wanted me, but the facility was at 126th Street, and city buses went only to 96th Street," she said. "It was everything I could dream of, but I had no way to get there every day."

Instead, Whitaker said, she accepted a temporary job that lasted 10 months near her inner-city home. She said many people in neglected neighborhoods feel isolated and trapped because of a lack of mobility.

"That's why I really think that a good public transit system is the ticket to safety, security and the American dream for some of us," Whitaker said.

Indianapolis' transit system is consistently ranked among the worst for American cities. The planned Red Line would expand rapid transit to the suburbs and thousands of jobs there, running from Westfield to the north to Greenwood to the south. Two other BRT lines also are planned.

IndyGo officials said about 59 percent of transit trips are for work, but only 33 percent of the employees can get to their jobs on buses within 90 minutes, which ranks 64th in the country. The bus service now has only a few routes with frequent service, meaning at least every 15 minutes. Under the expanded system, the number of jobs within a half-mile of a frequent bus line would increase from 140,000 to nearly 248,000, IndyGo estimates.

IndyCan also works to alleviate jail overcrowding, reduce the number of incarcerated low-level offenders and help recently released prisoners find employment. Shoshanna Spector, a spokeswoman for IndyCan, said an efficient transit system could help felons find and keep jobs and ultimately reduce the rate at which they commit new crimes.

The phone banks opened Monday with about 20 volunteers making about 400 calls. They will rotate at four churches Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Spector said the goal is to reach 27,000 people three times before Election Day, for a total of about 80,000 "conversations."

Call IndyStar reporter John Tuohy at (317) 444-6418. Follow him on Twitter: @john_tuohy.