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Supporters declare victory for mass transit tax hike in Marion County

November 8th, 2016 | Indianapolis Star | Link to Article

Proponents of a public transit ballot referendum to increase bus service in Indianapolis declared victory Tuesday night, hailing the income tax hike approved by voters as a long-term solution for the city's transportation woes and a benefit to workers and employers, alike.

"Today our city has taken a monumental step toward improving talent retention, enhancing economic development and growing our tax base," said Mark Fisher, vice president of government relations and policy development of the Indy Chamber.

With 483 out of 600 precincts counted, voters favored the referendum 57.8 percent to 42.1 percent.

The measure could increase income taxes up to 25 cents for every $100 earned and would pay for a 70 percent increase in Indianapolis bus service. The $56 million a year in new tax revenue also would help fund the Red Line, the first of three planned BRT routes.

Backers of the referendum said public transit was a social justice issue for low-income residents who need buses to get to their jobs, doctor's appointments and other essential places that are difficult to reach without a car. The tax hike would allow buses to run more often, earlier in the day and later at night.

Nicole Barnes, a campaign manager for IndyCan, a congregation of churches representing riders, said grass-roots legwork helped the measure pass. The group made 153,000 phone calls and talked to people at bus stops and community meetings.

“It was just educating people about what this transit plan would do,” Barnes said. “You can have all the signs and fliers you want, but there is nothing like having a real person who can answer your questions right on the spot.”

IndyCan spent $250,000 for the campaign. The Indy Chamber raised about $500,000.

The ballot measure is the first ever for public transportation in Central Indiana. Scores of other cities across the country have put transit questions on the ballot, with a success rate of about 73 percent in the past four years, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, an information clearinghouse based in Buffalo, N.Y., that promotes public transportation.

Big business and civic groups also supported the referendum.

The Red Line would run from Westfield to Greenwood when complete. The first phase would be a 13-mile stretch from 66th Street in Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis on the south side. The BRTs would run in bus-only lanes and stop at stations that resemble small train depots, with raised platforms, shelters, benches and ticket dispensers.

Transportation planners say those features would move the buses faster and save money on operational expenses in the long run. They also say the BRT would help boost ridership systemwide and spur economic development along the line.

But some taxpayers and businesses along College Avenue on the proposed Red Line route doubt those projections and fear the construction of the stations in the middle of the street would cause unnecessary and catastrophic disruptions.

Transit advocates now turn their attention to the Indianapolis City-County Council, which will consider the tax hike.

Some council members have said if the referendum didn't pass with a large majority, they would be in favor of a lesser tax hike. But the referendum’s backers said that would violate the spirit of the transit initiative.

“The fight is not over,” said Fisher, of the Indy Chamber. “The council has to provide the full thing. This transit plan was crafted with that expectation.”

The city’s transit agency, IndyGo, also is awaiting the release of a $75 million federal appropriation to build the Red Line. Though it was included in President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget, Congress must sign off on it.

The federal funds will pay the bulk of the $96 million construction costs for the first leg of the Red Line.