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What Indianapolis’ BRT Mess Reveals About the Troubling Power of ‘State Preemption’ in Transportation

What happens when state legislatures try to stop sustainable transportation projects that city dwellers badly want? Indianapolis provides a troubling case study.

When Indiana’s General Assembly wrapped up its 2024 legislative session on February 29th, it  marked an anti-climax ten years in the making.

Eleventh hour negotiations between House speaker Todd Huston, Indianapolis city officials, and local transit agency IndyGo had resulted in a compromise on the controversial State Bill 52, which would have prohibited the construction of dedicated bus lanes statewide for a year. In exchange for Huston not advancing the legislation, IndyGo agreed to revise plans for its long-sought “Blue Line” project, and agreed to maintain “at least two lanes of [car] traffic flow going both east and west, whenever possible” —  further diluting the percentage of the route that would be covered by BRT, which had already been reduced from 70 percent to 60 during earlier negotiations. 

That bargain will allow IndyGo to remain eligible for the $150 million in FTA “small grant” discretionary dollars the project has already won, rather than going back to square one had the bus lanes been scrapped entirely. Pro-Blue Line Indianapolites, though, are still disappointed by the prospect of a redesign — and stuck pointing the finger at a state legislature seemingly unwilling to weigh bus lanes' benefits against hypothetical slowdowns for drivers.

And policy experts say Indy advocates are not the only ones up against this kind of “state preemption,” a procedural tool red state legislatures often wield against blue city transportation leaders when the latter advances transportation projects the former don’t like.  

“States have often come in and said 'Okay, local government, you have this concern, but … tough,'” said Beth Osborne, executive director of Transportation for America. “The state is the most powerful entity, and as a result, the state is ultimately responsible for transportation outcomes … I think it's very important that their taxpayers and voters recognize that, and know that the more they preempt [cities], the more they are the ones [who need] to be held responsible for the results.”

So why would states preempt federally bankrolled projects with popular support like the Blue Line? Osborne explains that while the Feds front the money to build these projects, upkeep costs tend to fall to the states. 

And while Republican-led state legislatures are vying (and succeeding) at preempting transit projects across the country, “Indiana has been the most aggressive in this regard,” says Kevin DeGood, Infrastructure Policy Director at the Center for American Progress.

Perhaps Hoosier hostility toward transit stands out because of how broadly popular the state’s transit projects are with voters — at least until the state legislature preempts them. 

That’s perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Blue Line project, which originated in a 2016 ballot referendum in which a whopping 59.36 percent of county voters said yes to a 0.25 percent income tax hike specifically to finance “a connected network of buses and rapid transit lines.” The first of those routes, the Red Line, opened ahead of schedule and under budget in September 2019, and became the first fixed-route transit service Indianapolis had seen since its streetcars were shuttered in 1953. Indy’s second BRT route, the Purple Line, is set to open later this year on 90 percent dedicated lanes, and would have been exempted from SB52’s banexperts estimate it will reduce transit travel time by as much as 25 percent, while also introducing three new miles of multi-use paths, 9.5 miles of sidewalks, and 355 new or upgraded curb ramps.

It’s statistics like these that made a transit advocate out of Health by Design Executive Director Kim Irwin. It frustrates Irwin that no matter how well-documented the causation between better transit and improved public health outcomes, it doesn’t take you very far in the state house — because if it did, she says, Indy’s Blue Line “wouldn't even be a conversation.” 

The senator who authored SB 52, though, argued that constructing dedicated lanes disrupts business and congests streets — and that buses, as a concept, are behind the times.

“I, in 2024, see fixed modes of transportation as a 19th, 20th century way of looking at the world,” Indiana State Senator Aaron Freeman (R) told MirrorIndy following his introduction of the bill. “I can on my phone, now, summon a car [to] take me anywhere I want to go in minutes. I think fixed modes of transportation, especially in a dedicated lane situation, is not the way of the future.”

Irwin points out, though, that not every Indianapolite is able to Uber anywhere at a moment’s notice, and that ride share services do precious little to mitigate traffic violence. 

“What's disappointing and concerning is that all of this also takes a very narrow view of what it takes to not just live and exist, but to thrive in our society,” added Irwin. “When we think, 'Oh, anyone can just hop in their car and drive,' or 'Oh, anyone can just afford an Uber,' not only is that incongruent with the reality of the economics of many people's lives, but it also totally overlooks the fact that … our roadways cannot accommodate that."

Transit workers echoed that sentiment during an emotional hearing on SB 52 in January, and hammered home the human stakes of continuing to allow drivers to dominate the roads. 

“I’m here before you today on behalf of four of my riders who can’t be here,” said IndyGo bus driver William Hazen, who lives along the Blue Line’s planned Washington Street corridor. “All four of them were killed by speeding drivers on East Washington Street. We know the traffic-calming elements that dedicated bus lanes bring. There have been studies; the science is in. We know that they work, we know that they make streets safer.”

With one voter-approved BRT line already operational and another nearing opening day, some advocates say that blocking the Blue Line has more to do with politics than actual concern for driver convenience. In 2020, the editorial board of Black Indy Live alleged that a local car dealer’s contributions to Senator Freeman’s campaign sowed the seeds for SB52; campaign finance disclosures further reveal that Freeman has received $51,100 from the automotive industry since he launched his political career in 2016. Freeman’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Whatever its source, the protracted battle for the Blue Line typifies an urban/rural divide dogging just about every state’s legislature.

“You really can't find a state where that's not the case,” Osborne says, “where the biggest city isn't the annoyance of the rest of the legislature … [there’s a] sense that the biggest city — and especially if the biggest city is also the capital city — that they get too much attention, too much care, and that often colors these conversations as well. But in this case, this is someone applying identity politics to a project that is needed and wanted by the people and the taxpayers of Indianapolis.”

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