Updated: February 7, 2013 6:47AM
INDIANAPOLIS — The leaders of 18 central Indiana cities and towns have formed a coalition to push a bill that seeks to expand regional bus service and create a commuter rail line.
The bill written by state Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, would create a nine-county transit district and allow ballot questions in Marion and Hamilton counties on whether to raise local income taxes to help fund mass transit projects.
Those taxes would help fund a proposed 10-year, $1.3 billion plan that calls for a commuter rail line from Noblesville to downtown Indianapolis and doubling bus service in the Indianapolis area.
Westfield Mayor Andy Cook, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and other members of the Regional Council of Elected Officials began meeting informally four years ago. Cook said it took time to decide on mass transit as a priority issue.
The transit bill died in the last legislative session, but another local group, the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, believes it has a stronger chance in the session that begins Monday as more Republican lawmakers come aboard.
Ron Gifford, the executive director of the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, told the Indianapolis Business Journal it’s important to show the bill has support beyond Indianapolis and the Hamilton County town that would see the immediate benefits.
“All the planning we’re doing today in building out the backbone of the system will be critical to those communities,” he said. “I think they will be very public and very vocal about this,” he said of the mayors’ group.
The Regional Council of Elected Officials’ members have all endorsed the transit plan, including communities outside of the transit plan’s scope.
Shelbyville Mayor Tom DeBaun said that even though his city is about 20 miles southeast of Indianapolis he agreed to advocate for the bill because he thinks it will make central Indiana more attractive to employers.
The bill could face a roadblock in the Senate, where Sen. Mike Young, R-Speedway, said he’s not won over by the local officials’ push. Young said he thinks the referendum approach on local income taxes is a method for them to avoid voting for a tax increase.
“When we pass a tax, we don’t put it on the ballot and let voters decide. We either do it or don’t do it,” he said. “They’re the elected official, and they’ve got to be on record for voting for or voting against it.”
Local government leaders often work together on regional topics, such as methamphetamine abuse in southwestern Indiana, but the Regional Council’s effort is the most visible right now, said Matt Greller, executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns.
Cook said that if any regional coalition is going to exert influence at the Statehouse, it should be central Indiana. He noted that the Regional Council’s member communities represent 26 percent of the state’s population, contribute 33 percent of tax revenue, and receive 27 percent of that revenue in return.
The Regional Council includes any community with at least 10,000 residents in Marion County and its seven surrounding counties.
The group, which is receiving financial and professional support from the Urban Land Institute Indiana, is moving forward on another complex issue — central Indiana’s regional water supply. That issue was pushed to the forefront by last summer’s drought that forced local water-use restrictions.
“Water is going to be the oil, if you will, in 20 years,” Cook said, adding that currently, “Whatever company or municipality can stick the most straws in the ground wins.”