Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Regional Mass Transit Plan Relies On Income Tax For Funding

In an unusual move, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and Carmel Mayor James Brainard are pushing a regional mass transit proposal that will be introduced and acted upon during the upcoming legislative session of the Indiana General Assembly that relies entirely upon an increase in the local income tax in Marion County and Hamilton County as the principal source of revenues to provide $1.3 billion in capital and operating revenues to construct a regional transportation system to support commuting between Marion and Hamilton Counties over the next decade. Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) and Rep. Bill Crawford (D-Indianapolis) plan to introduce the proposal that calls for a public referendum on the question at the November 2012 general election. Voters in the two counties will be asked to support a 0.3% income tax levy utilizing the county economic development income tax ("CEDIT"). Proponents of the regional mass transit will provide an option for other surrounding counties to opt in later, but for now only Marion and Hamilton will participate because that's where the mass transit needs are the greatest and where there is the strongest local support among elected and community officials according to the proponents. The heavily-congested northeast corridor is of particular concern.

The plan calls for new bus service in Carmel and expanded bus service (nearly a doubling) in Indianapolis. It calls for the construction of a northeast corridor commuter rail line between Union Station in downtown Indianapolis and Noblesville that will include approximately ten to twelve stations and provide a commute time of just under 30 minutes from one end to the other. The plan also calls for express bus service between the two counties, as well as four bus rapid transit lines that feature dedicated bus lanes with synchronized traffic control systems to speed travel and permanent boarding stations similar to those offered for commuter rail lines.

The plan assumes the CEDIT tax for the RTA will generate about $90 million in revenues annually. Marion County property taxpayers will continue to kick in about $21 million a year, while state funding is expected to be about $12.6 million. Proponents of the plan believe fare receipts will generate $27.8 million annually, or about 20% of the $151.4 million in annual operating revenues that will be needed to operate the system by 2021. The expanded bus service will be added first, followed by the bus rapid transit system. The first rail line for the northeast corridor will probably not be operational until the end of the 10-year period.

The $1.3 billion, 10-year capital plan will rely heavily on federal funding and bond proceeds. About $590 million of that amount will come from federal funding for new mass transit starts and capital grants. Nearly a half billion dollars will be raised from bonds that will be issued with a $20 million annual revenue stream to help service the debt provided by the new RTA tax. The plan calls for tapping about $42.4 million in TIF revenues to build permanent stations for the rail line and bus rapid transit lines.

By way of comparison, the plan's proponents point out the cost of other current highway improvement projects in the region are higher than the 10-year mass transit plan for the two counties. The "Accelerate 465" project on Indianapolis' west side is costing $518 million. To rebuild U.S. 31 from Carmel to Westfield, it will cost $600 million. Planned lane expansions and interchange work in the northeast corridor for I-465 and I-69 are costing $383 million. The total price tag for those three projects alone is $1.5 billion.

Critics will question the decision to rely on the income tax as a source of funding for mass transit rather than a levy on commuters, a gas tax or toll road charges, which would arguably represent user fees.  If the new tax is approved, combined state and local income taxes in Indianapolis will climb to 5.32%. The state currently imposes a 3.4% statewide income tax, while Indianapolis' combined local income tax rate is 1.62%. Neighboring Illinois has come under fire for hiking its income taxes too much, leading some businesses and residents to leave the state. Illinois' income tax rate of 5% would be lower than the 5.32% rate in Indianapolis. Hamilton County's combined state and local income tax rate would rise to 4.7% under the plan. Lake County and neighboring Morgan County, by comparison, have no local income taxes. Their residents pay only the 3.8% state income tax.

It should be pointed out that the legislature this past year enacted a new law that gives the governor authority to turn existing highways into toll roads. Indianapolis area taxpayers could face a double tax whammy if the state decides to turn portions of I-465, I-70 or I-65 into toll roads as a way of generating new revenues for road projects, particularly since the state has depleted much of the $3.8 billion generated from the sale of the Indiana Toll Road several years ago.

Another sticking point with the proposal could rest on control of the new RTA. The plan calls for Mayor Greg Ballard and the Hamilton Co. Commissioners to each appoint three members to a new governing board; however, members would have weighted votes based on the amount their country contributed financially to the RTA similar to how the United Nations operates. Initially, that would give the Marion County appointees a 75% weighted vote compared to Hamilton County's 25% for its three appointees. Additionally, super majority votes of the board would be required for certain approvals, including adoption of bylaws, borrowing, rates and hiring of key personnel.


Mike Kole said...

This is a horrible boondoggle. Well, who needs Democrats when you have Republicans like Brainard, Ditslear, and Ballard.

"Critics will question the decision to rely on the income tax as a source of funding for mass transit rather than a levy on commuters, a gas tax or toll road charges, which would arguably represent user fees."

I can't believe I read this. No, a user fee would be a rider fare. To increase gas taxes or to enact toll road charges would be the exact opposite of a use fees. One driving on the road is hardly using a train or a bus.

guy77money said...

This *&%$#$#%!!!! I could approve of giving more money for Indy Go but Indianapolis does not need a light rail system. The rail system will cost millions and will never bring back the money Indy will put into it. It will never pay for itself. What does the new hotels downtown need more workers from Fishers and Noblesville?

Gary R. Welsh said...

Mike, Obviously, I'm looking at users of public transportation in general. The concept of mass transit is to encourage more people to leave their cars parked and commute by bus or train to work to alleviate the need for additional spending on roads and highways. Proponents of mass transit contend it is impossible to fully fund these forms of public transportation through rider fares. Mass transit typically relies on only about 20% to 25% from fares for its operation. Now, once upon a time, private companies operated trains and bus systems in the major cities, including Indianapolis, without any public funding. I'll let you take a stab at why that approach no longer works.

varangianguard said...

Who here thinks that anybody (in charge) can think outside of the box (innovatively) when it comes to anything besides "how to get money for my cronies"?

Just think of the potential for lining the pockets of certain insiders.

Bill said...

I'm betting that Keystone gets into the rail building business.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Keystone won't need to get into the railroad building business. They can build the permanent stations for the rail line and the bus rapid transit lines.

Paul K. Ogden said...

People don't talk about the real reason mass transit has not taken off here. The population is less dense than in virtually any major city in the U.S. Of the top 20 cities, we rank 19th in population density in one study I looked at.

guy77money said...

Here are some main problems. Will people in Carmel and Fishers going to want to drive 15 minutes to hop a train in Fishers and then wait 10 minutes for the train. Then you figure a 20 to 30 minutes to downtown. Throw in a 15 to 20 minutes walk to work. In that time they could have driven downtown and parked and been at their office in a shorter time. Light rail makes no sense. People in Indiana just don't like to walk. This isn't Chicago, New York or Boston where a commuter thinks nothing of waking 8 to 10 blocks to work.

Spend money and get our bus system in the inner (inside 465) city to have move buses and stops. These are the people who will really benefit from mass bus transit. I know numerous people that drive from Carmel downtown and it usually doesn't take more then 30 minutes.

Gary R. Welsh said...

I will say that mobile computing has changed many people's views on that, guy. People like being able to work while commuting to work using their mobile computing devices and cell phones. It's much easier to do that if you can sit and ride to work without worrying about watching the road.