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Senate weighing 1-year delay in Indy transit plan

– A plan to expand mass transit in central Indiana faces a new roadblock after a Senate committee voted to delay the project at least a year, a move supported by a tea party group skeptical of the possible $1.3 billion cost to taxpayers.

The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee last week voted to further study a project that would double bus service in Indianapolis and add a rail line or bus service between downtown Indianapolis and Noblesville, about 20 miles north. The full Senate is expected to take up the proposal this week.

Tea party group Americans for Prosperity have questioned whether the expansion would be worth the $1.3 billion cost to taxpayers over the next decade.

In February, the state House approved a bill that would allow 10 counties in central Indiana to hold a referendum letting voters decide.

Supporters of the plan, which they say would help attract young professionals to Indianapolis, argue that mass transit in cities has been studied for decades and there’s no need to wait on the measure any longer. If it is sent to a study committee this summer, it would be at least a year before the proposal is enacted.

“(Mass transit has) been widely studied, (and) there will continue to be opportunities for input prior to a vote actually occurring by the voters,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “We should keep that process moving forward through legislative authorization to do the local referendum.”

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said the General Assembly shouldn’t stand in the way of letting voters decide whether to upgrade long-overdue transit needs.

“I think the senators are looking too much at trying to get into the weeds of the plan,” Torr said. “What this is really about is giving local control to the local governments.”

But Chase Downham, Indiana state director of Americans for Prosperity, said he feared the project might end up costing more than originally estimated.

“We are concerned not only with the tax increase but the overall cost of the expansion and what that would mean for the budgets going forward,” he said. “I think there’s false hope in the belief that if we build it, they will come.”

Indiana isn’t the only state in which tea party activists have targeted mass transit proposals. Tea party groups in Georgia helped defeat a sales tax increase that would have raised billions of dollars for transportation projects. The proposal was struck down by voters in both the Atlanta region and rural parts of the state last year.

Those who opposed the proposal hired consultants, bought state voter rolls, used social media and reached out to Atlanta’s Democratic strongholds to ensure the referendum failed.

Americans for Prosperity posted a statement on its Indiana website Tuesday praising the Senate committee for making a move that “halts the potential tax hikes included in the bill and gives the statehouse the opportunity to rework the legislation.”

Sen. Pat Miller, R-Indianapolis, who sponsored the review proposal, said the goal wasn’t to stall the project but to make sure central Indiana’s upgrades would be done “in the most effective and fiscally appropriate way.”