Friday, January 25, 2013

Just The Facts, Please, On Mass Transit

Once upon a time reputable news organizations made some attempt to separate hard news reporting by their reporters from the marketing efforts of their advertising department. Sadly, that's no longer the case. The Indianapolis Star is one of the worst offenders on this score. The newspaper's management has obviously sent out an edict that its reporters must report only facts favorable to those pushing a legislative agenda of creating an unaccountable metropolitan mass transit authority, which will have considerable taxing authority and which will be run by a handful of unelected persons. That's the only reasonable explanation one can provide for the litany of news stories, columns and editorials, all of which superficially argue the need for a multi-billion dollar investment in a regional mass transit system. Missing from all of this fluff are any hard facts that permit a reader to reach a well-considered opinion on the matter.

Fortunately, we have people in the blogosphere like fellow blogger Pat Andrews, who for no compensation, devotes hours and hours of time researching and studying local government matters before us to aid in thoughtful consideration of legislative and budgetary proposals. Despite a nearly four-year long campaign by the IndyConnect people pushing the regional mass transit legislation with the helping hand of a very generous grant from the Federal Transit Authority, Andrews has struggled to find any reliable financial data that supports the proponents call for approval of funding from a 0.3% local income tax, TIF revenues and other governmental sources to support this multi-billion dollar endeavor.

To underscore just how disingenuous the proponents have been in their fiscal analysis, Andrews notes that when a $6.7 billion regional mass transit vision was first laid out in 2010, the proponents pegged its cost per taxpayer at $180 annually. A few months later, the proponents rolled out a scaled down version of the original plan from $6.7 billion to a $2.4 billion, 25-year capital investment plan. The cost per taxpayer for the $2.4 billion plan was still $180 per year. The latest rendition as contained in HB 1011, currently under consideration before the Indiana House of Representatives, calls for a $1.3 billion capital investment spending plan. Yet the per taxpayer cost of $180 is the same as it was when the proponents unveiled a $6.7 billion plan. These contradictions Andrews found from prior news reports by a Star reporter. Yet local news reports don't discern these contradictions in their reporting.

Andrews also found contradiction in estimates on the annual operating costs for the proposed mass transit system. According to numbers the Star obtained from the Central Indiana Task Force in December, 2011, annual operating expenses were pegged at $151.7 million. Other more recent news articles have pegged that number as being $135 million a year. An LSA analysis of the fiscal impact of HB 1011, which provides little information because of the "bill's indeterminate fiscal impact," noted that IndyGo receives about 16% of  its operating revenues from fares paid by users of the bus system. Yet supporters of the regional mass transit system say that 19% of its operating revenues will be generated from fares. On what basis do they expect riders to provide a greater share of the expenses of operating a larger and more comprehensive system for providing mass transit?

HB 1011 contemplates that both Marion and Hamilton Counties will initially adopt a 0.3% income tax to finance the start-up of a metropolitan transit authority at a referendum. Although news reports suggest that referendum would occur at the general election in 2014, the bill actually permits the counties to conduct a special election this November for this purpose. The income tax in Marion County is expected to generate $51.1 million in 2014 compared to $33.6 million in Hamilton County, or a total of $84.7 million. The LSA analysis doesn't say anything about the TIF revenues that the authority plans to rely upon for additional revenues and that impact on other units of local government dependent on property tax revenues. Revenues currently collected by IndyGo would be absorbed by the metropolitan transit authority if it is created. IndyGo currently collects about $24 million in property and excise tax revenues; however, that number will top $30 million this year due to a special tax levy IndyGo's board approved last year to cover a shortfall in operating expense revenues. IndyGo's total revenues from all sources is about $65 million a year currently.

"Any taxpayer who wants to be informed about the costs of the mass transit proposal has to do a hell of a lot of digging on their own and then decide if the information is out of date," Andrews observes. That's for sure.

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