Two leaders of Indianapolis' successful efforts to greatly improve its transit system came to town this week to inspire Capital Crossroads' Transit Future Work Group, which is looking to do the same here.
Michael Huber, CEO, and Mark Fisher, chief policy officer, of the Indy Chamber said the improvements didn't have much to do with traffic congestion. They had more to do with a system that made it very difficult to get anywhere easily or quickly, demand from a diverse array of interests, not just low-income residents, and the promise of economic development.
A broad-based task force similar to one that is working in Des Moines guided the Indy efforts, asking for a 3 percent local option sales tax. What they got instead was a 0.25 percent income tax, approved by lawmakers, voters and finally the City-County Council, that is expected to raise $54 million a year to expand transit, Fisher said.
The plan calls for three rapid transit lines, better buses, routes with service every 10 to 15 minutes instead of 30 to 90, and extended hours. The cost: about $100 a year per $40,000 of income. The Indy team wanted to pursue light rail, but were told, as Greater Des Moines has been, that the market was too small to support it. In fact, the legislation in Indiana prohibited light rail and protected the state against further financial obligations for transit. Huber said residents have loved the idea of bus rapid transit instead.
The plan is expected to bring a boom of development along the core routes, tripling the number of people with regular service. It won't happen overnight.
"You have to be in this for the long haul," Fisher said of the years-long effort to pass the plan.
Huber said a local option sales tax would help Des Moines. That is one of the options that have been discussed, but would need state approval. Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said three finalists are expected to visit Des Moines before a firm is picked to complete a study of financing options for an expansion of transit and mobility in Greater Des Moines. The study should be done by September, when the next steps will be discussed. Another panel is working on a new governance structure for the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, or DART, which is expected to expand suburban representation.
Fisher said it is important to bring together private businesses willing to help pay for a system, housing interests, colleges and universities, local governments, and others. The Indy team took five polls, formed a speakers' bureau, launched an ad campaign and hired public relations professionals.
Drake University President Marty Martin, who is one of the leaders of the Greater Des Moines task force, said he and others will continue to pull together a broad coalition to support improvements, even as work continues on the governance and financing work. He said he is optimistic about private support from companies and other major institutions, such as Drake.
"It's not going to just be one source" of funding, Martin said. "The task force will continue to be a place where the conversation can occur about what the possibilities are and how we bring the business community and the nonprofits and other large employers into that conversation. Because, again, we heard that that is how this reform (in Indianapolis) was driven.
"Making sure everyone understands how critical transportation is to them, even if they don't ride the bus" is important, Martin said. The transit system is an important part of talent attraction and retention, quality of life, and economic development, he added.
This week's visit by Indy officials included a luncheon at the Greater Des Moines Partnership attended by representatives of local government, housing agencies, Drake, the Partnership, Capital Crossroads, DART and other agencies.