Surprised, Not Surprised at Indy Light Rail Ban Repeal Failure

I was surprised that a bill to repeal an Indiana law banning the spending of public money on a light rail system in Indianapolis sailed through the House of Representatives of the Hoosier State and not surprised that it died in the Senate.

Like all large urban areas, Indianapolis is surrounded by affluent suburbs that like being associated with the core city’s cultural and entertainment offerings but want to distance themselves from its crime and social pathologies.

Representing those suburbs are conservative and mostly Republican lawmakers who tend not to favor very much public transportation.

They are amendable to certain boutique public transportation such as transporting the elderly to medical appointments, but oppose large-scale regional public transportation initiatives.

In 2014 they flexed their muscles by adopting the light rail ban as part of a mass transit funding agreement that gave Indianapolis and surrounding counties the ability to raise income taxes for public transit by means of a ballot initiative.

Then Amazon put Indianapolis on its list of 20 finalists for its second headquarters.

The finalists were chosen from 238 applicants chasing the $5 billion project that Amazon has said will result in 50,000 well-paying jobs.

That gave Rep. Justin Moed, an Indianapolis Democrat, an opening.

One criterion that Amazon wants is access to good public transportation. That is not a strong suit of Indianapolis or, for that matter, Columbus, which also made the list of Amazon finalists.

Neither city has a rail public transportation system or even a shovel-ready plan. Moed apparently thought Amazon might notice the light rail ban in Indiana law.

The House overwhelmingly approved his bill repealing the ban but then Senate Republicans decided not to vote on the bill.

News accounts cited a proposed amendment by Senator Mike Delph, a Carmel Republican, which would have required Indianapolis to prove that public transit money isn’t needed to fill potholes.

That was a ruse to kill the bill. Delph doesn’t care about potholes on Indianapolis streets except those he drives over to get to and from the Statehouse.

Carmel is located in a cluster of affluent suburbs in Hamilton County northeast of Indianapolis. It’s the same region that made news last year when the mayor of Fishers proposed abandoning a former Nickel Plate Road branch line that in recent years had hosted the Indiana Fairtrain run by the Indiana Transportation Museum.

The mayor wants to convert the railroad right of way into a hiking and biking trail.

Many who live in such affluent places are not opposed to railroads per se. They just want them to run somewhere else.

They also have the education, the money and the political clout to do something about their NIMBY views.

The effort to repeal the light rail ban in Indianapolis reminded me of a comment I once heard about why efforts to transform the former Erie railroad line from Cleveland to Aurora into commuter rail have languished.

“Trains run both ways,” he said. Some who live in suburbs far from urban centers fear that criminals and other socially undesirable types will ride the trains to their pristine suburbs and cause all sorts of mischief and criminal activity.

However, the reasons why lawmakers from suburban and rural areas look askance at public transportation, particularly rail transit, are multifaceted.

Transportation is not something that legislators talk about much other than, maybe, highway development.

Yes, there is an anti-rail bias at work with some saying rail transportation is the technology and transportation mode of your grandparents.

Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, told The Indianapolis Star that light rail “feels like it’s just going to be a dinosaur technology in the very near future.”

Long, who denied that the proposed Delph amendment killed the light rail repeal bill, also said any light rail project was likely to be a boondoggle. By that he meant that it would require continuous public funding of its operating costs.

That goes to the heart of much of the conservative opposition to public transportation, including funding of intercity rail service. They don’t like spending public money in an open-ended manner on things they believe are not the responsibility of government at any level.

Being proponents of small government, they do not believe, generally, that public funding should not be used to pay operating expenses for any transportation endeavor.

In their view those who use transportation should shoulder all of its operating expenses whether it is a train, plane, bus or livery car.

Yet many conservatives in Florida fiercely fought against Brightline, a privately funded intercity rail service that uses tracks owned by a private freight carrier.

So the opposition is rooted in something other than ideology about the role of government in public affairs. There are some underlying prejudices at work that rail opponents don’t want to discuss.

Many conservative lawmakers are highly sympathetic to the highway lobby. They recognize there is only so much money to be had for transportation spending and don’t want any of that money diverted toward other modes of transportation.

Indiana Senate President Long insisted to reporters that the opposition in the Senate GOP caucus to the light rail ban repeal was not partisan.

There is some truth to that. The Senate sponsor of the light rail repeal ban was a Republican who is the chairman of the Marion County Republican party. Indianapolis is located in Marion County.

The interests of Marion County and its surrounding counties don’t always coincide. Merritt also has clashed with Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, over the condition of Indy’s streets.

The GOP caucus was split on the light rail ban repeal didn’t want to bare that in a public fight. Majority parties these days don’t like to have to depend on votes from the minority party in their chamber to win approval of legislation.

Yet another complication was that Marion County voters had approved a 2016 public transit ballot initiative to create three bus rapid transit routes, not unlike the BRT route in Cleveland connecting downtown with University Circle via Euclid Avenue.

There is some thought that many voters favored the initiative because its backers said the money would not be used for light rail.

Lifting the light rail ban had some support in the business community. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce said the city needs all mass transit options on the table if it is to attract major new employers such as Amazon.

Even if the light rail ban had been lifted, there was no assurance that a light rail line would have been developed.

Fights such as the one that recently played out in Indianapolis have occurred in every city in the country where rail transit has been proposed.

Rail transit proponents have won a few skirmishes and seen streetcar and light rail lines develop in some seemingly unlikely places.

Yet the United States remains a highway oriented transportation culture and there are few signs that that is about to change. The opposition to rail transit and expansive regional public transportation is too entrenched.

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