Category: Economic Development
In my eyes, the debate about Central Indiana mass transit spans generations. It focuses today on those who rely on transit to connect with jobs, public services and community amenities.
It has its roots in a generation of Hoosiers who benefited from a nationally admired transit system and addresses a choice that will shape our city for generations to come.
I know about Central Indiana's transit heritage in part because of personal connections. My grandfather and my wife's grandfather both worked for the Indianapolis Transit Authority back when this region had a thriving passenger rail system. In addition, when I go back to my hometown, Winchester, I can see remnants of the tracks that once linked residents of that eastern Indiana town to the capital city.
Certainly, that personal transit history is part of why I wanted to serve on the board of the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation, which operates IndyGo; however, my interest is based on more than nostalgia. It's based on what's best for this region in the long run.
Through my volunteer involvement with organizations and individuals, I've seen the impact transportation has on a people's lives and, especially, their ability to get and keep jobs. I've met people who missed out on employment opportunities because of a transit system that failed to grow along with the city. IndyGo's bus fleet is half as big as those in peer cities, and its budget compares at about the same ratio. For example, the bus system in Columbus, Ohio, has an annual budget of $120 million, compared to Indy Go's budget of $65 million. What all of this means in practical terms is that people who live and work in Indianapolis sometimes have to spend two, three or even four hours a day on the bus to get to and from work.
Since I became an IndyGo board member last year, I have seen its challenges up-close. Its leadership and staff provided more than 10 million passenger trips last year - an increase of 8 percent over 2011 - despite limited resources. In order to meet this increasing demand on a tight budget, IndyGo has reduced its operational expenses. For example, it cut employee healthcare costs by providing an on-site clinic and a wellness program. It buys fuel in large quantities at times when prices are low. And it pursues - and wins - federal grants to cover the cost of replacement buses, technology improvements and more.
Of course, there are limits to what even a well-run organization can do. That's why I was relieved when the Marion County City Council approved a 2013 Indy Go budget that includes $6 million for increased services. Still, I know more will be needed to meet the increasing demand for transit.
Now I've addressed the past and present, but what about the future? That's where I see the strongest case for improved transit in Central Indiana. Young professionals just coming into the workforce and those who will be raising their families here in the future have a different view of transit than previous generations. They see it not as an amenity but as a necessity. As a result, the companies that plan to hire those people make transportation an integral factor in deciding where to locate operations.
I've experienced this tension firsthand. When I talk with young professionals and people coming out of college about working in Indianapolis, one of their first questions is always about transit. Also, I have a 33-year-old son who lives here. When he talks with friends who took jobs in other cities, many of them say they're ready to return to Indianapolis to raise families. However, because they've lived in places like Denver, Chicago or Washington, D.C., they balk at the thought of moving to a place where they would have to rely on a car to get around. In fact, many of them don't want to even own a car, let alone drive one every day.
Central Indiana once had one of the best transit systems in the nation, and we let it go. Today, we have a bus service that is making the most of limited resources. On this foundation, we can - no, we must - build a system that prepares us for the transit expectations of the future.
Gregory F. Hahn is a principal and partner at Bose McKinney & Evans LLP and serves on the board of IndyGo
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