New mass transit plan outlined for central Indiana

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An effort is underway in Indianapolis to raise taxes to help pay for rail and expanded bus service in the city. As Eyewitness News first reported Monday, a new mass transit system will cost over a billion dollars to build.

The plan calls for doubling the number of bus routes, adding bus rapid transit along key corridors and converting the Indiana State Fair tracks into a commuter rail line from Noblesville to downtown.

Elected officials and business leaders say mass transit is critical to promoting jobs and economic development not just in Indianapolis, but the region.

"It's going to make central Indiana more competitive and improve the quality of life," said Mayor Jim Brainard (R-Carmel).

The $1.3 billion system would start in Marion and Hamilton Counties. It would be paid for with federal money and a three-tenths of one percent increase in the local income tax. That's provided voters in those two counties approve referendums on the issue next November. Republicans, typically opposed to raising taxes, say this is different.

"It helps the entire city and region going forward. It's an investment, not just an expense," said Mayor Greg Ballard (R-Indianapolis).

But before mass transit goes anywhere, the Republican-controlled legislature needs to sign off on the source of funding and the referendum.

"It's a lot of money. It's expensive to build and the maintenance is ongoing so I have a lot of questions still," said Sen. Scott Schneider (R-Indianapolis).

Schneider predicts a tough sell among his colleagues, even the part about letting voters decide.

"I would be for a referendum if it were a fair fight, but in this case it's not fair. There's already a group that's well-organized," he said.

Mark Miles, who helped land the Super Bowl, says getting mass transit here will be far more difficult. But he also says it's a battle worth waging.

"To be the kind of region we want to be, to be competitive to get to work, whether it's suburban or urban, we need options and carefully done the transit system can be a good investment," he said.

It's not just lawmakers they need to get on board, but the governor. His spokesperson says Gov. Mitch Daniels hasn't weighed in yet. He's still reviewing the plan, but it's one he's sure to hear plenty about in the coming months.