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How Indianapolis Could Raise the Bar for Midwest Transit Investment

Following the anti-rail theatrics of state leadership in Ohio and Wisconsin, it's tempting to write off the entire Midwest as a desolate highwayscape full of pitchfork waving gas-guzzlers.

Even when there are setbacks, however, the broader reality is that all over the country -- even in the Midwest -- communities are slowly marching toward more sustainable transportation systems.

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Today on the Network, Transport Michigan reports that the state's new governor-elect, despite his Republican Party credentials, may help advance plans for passenger rail there. And Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic brings us some heartening news from Indianapolis, where the city is poised to invest big in public transportation.

According to Freemark, the Indianapolis region has developed a plan to devote nearly 25 percent of its transportation budget to public transit. This investment will cut average wait times at bus stops from 30 minutes to 10-15. The city is also proposing a 23-mile commuter rail corridor. Freemark offers this analysis:

Living in a big, dense, old city, it’s easy enough to criticize the decisions of policy makers in sprawling regions like Indianapolis, where a “generous” budget for investments in public transportation means spending one fourth of the amount to be dedicated to roads. But for a place where only 2% of people commute by transit, a long-term plan that does just that can be downright revolutionary.

After almost a year of outreach to thousands of citizens in the entire metro area, Indy Connect, a pseudo-public organization, released its report yesterday for 25 years of expenditures on roadways, bike paths, bus routes, and rail corridors. The recommendations are roughly similar to those unveiled in February, with $2.4 billion suggested to be spread over 25 years on transit and $8.4 billion on road expansion and maintenance. A tripling of bus service, the development of bus rapid transit, and the creation of a commuter rail corridor would require the implementation of a local sales tax. A light rail line once considered has been put on the back burner. The local metropolitan planning organization is likely to endorse the recommendations in December.

While neighboring states are balking and backpedaling, Indianapolis has worked hard to create a thoughtful and progressive transportation plan and developed the broad-based political support to back it. Transit advocates still have a few major hurdles to clear, however, according to Freemark:

The sponsors of Indy Connect will have to make their argument for better transit convincingly and encourage the Indiana legislature to allow citizens in the nine regional counties to vote on a tax increase to pay for local contributions to the projects. They face a major potential critic in Governor Mitch Daniels, however, who has repeatedly stated his hostility to raising taxes. In an era of continued economic recession and austerity-minded politicians, that may be unlikely.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Publicola reports on a citizen-led initiative to establish a "Motorists' Bill of Rights," that would roll back funding for transit and protect reckless drivers. And I Bike TO asks whether a proposal to require cyclists to register is more punitive than constructive.

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