Why We Need Mass Transit

February 08, 2013 |Indianapolis Star | Link to Article

Felicia Savage is the type of worker that state and local leaders have worked hard to attract. She works as a search media networker at a local tech company, Slingshot SEO. A product of New York City, she's a well-educated professional who moved to Indy with her husband (an Indiana native) to pursue a career with a fast-growing startup.

And her impressions of Indianapolis have been largely positive. She likes the people and the relatively low cost of living.

But the city has two major shortcomings that frustrate Savage. The first is that, because of the bus system's patchy service, it takes her an hour to commute to work each morning from her home on the Northside to her office at Keystone at the Crossing. By car, the drive would take about 15 minutes. The commute back home takes another hour each evening.

Savage's second frustration is that because many bus stops are out in the open she has to wait in the cold, wind and rain for her ride to come. And because so many places in our city lack sidewalks, Savage sometimes has to stand in and wade through mud to get to the bus. "Some of the bus stops are essentially in ditches," she said.

So why does she ride? Savage didn't need a driver's license living in New York City, and she's chosen not to buy a car or get a license here.

No car in Indy? How is that possible?

For Savage, it's a lifestyle choice, but one that Central Indiana, trying to bolster its economy with talented professionals, ignores at its own peril.

For many others, life without a car is an option forced on them because of low incomes or disabilities.

That's why the grassroots organization known as IndyCAN staged a rally and press conference in favor of transit legislation at the Statehouse last week. About 20 clergy members from urban congregations urged state lawmakers to approve legislation that would allow voters in Marion and Hamilton to vote on transit funding.

The pastors talked about members of their congregations who can't get to jobs because they can't afford cars. Some who do work face long daily commutes on a city bus system that is among the most inadequately funded in the nation.

Critics of the transit proposal contend that it's aimed at subsidizing the commutes of well-to-do suburbanites who want to avoid traffic delays on their way in and of the city. And some of that, for sure, would happen.

But transit also is a way out of the urban core for potential workers who could fill positions in Hamilton County, in and near the airport, and at Marion County job centers such as Park 100.

"It's a ticket to opportunity," the Rev. Charles Harrison, pastor of Barnes United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, said. "I have a lot of people in my church who don't have means for transportation. This will allow many people who don't have opportunities for jobs to go to doughnut counties where there are opportunities for employment."

It's not only potential employees who would benefit, of course. Business leaders in Central Indiana have become some of the staunchest advocates for transit because of the need to attract and retain workers. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, rarely an advocate for higher taxes, is among the business organizations that have climbed on board in support of the transit plan.

So too have academic leaders. IUPUI Chancellor Charles Bantz recently testified in favor of the transit bill during a committee hearing in the Indiana House. Bantz contends that a viable transit system not only would benefit many students but also would be attractive to highly sought-after faculty and staff.

As leader of a university with 20,000 parking spaces on campus, Bantz knows that transportation doesn't come cheap. He notes that it costs between $14 million and $18 million to build each new parking garage on the campus. More students and staff riding rapid transit buses means fewer dollars poured into concrete.

So who would ride a transit system in a car-focused culture? Young professionals. Suburban commuters. Would-be suburban employees. The poor. The disabled. The elderly. Students and their teachers. And more than a few people who don't fit neatly into any of those categories.

In other words, enough to make a transit system make sense, even in Indy.