INDIANAPOLIS - With the debate over funding Interstate 69 behind them, state lawmakers are looking ahead to a day when Indiana might be knitted together with mass-transit bus service or even light rail lines.

The issue is only in the study phase, but lawmakers made it clear Thursday they want the Indiana Department of Transportation to work closely with local and regional planning groups as state officials investigate mass-transit options in coming months and years.

The effort is one byproduct of the legislative fight last session over the Indiana Commerce Connector, the governor's failed proposal to build a privatized toll road to improve suburban Indianapolis traffic and use the proceeds to fund a portion of I-69. Gov. Mitch Daniels in March withdrew the Commerce Connector proposal amid fierce opposition from central Indiana residents. But the notion of reducing interstate congestion and providing new ways of moving commuters survives, at least in a summer study committee of the Legislature.

Co-chaired by the Legislature's two power brokers on highway construction - Senate Transportation Chairman Tom Wyss, a Republican, and House Roads Chairwoman Terri Austin, a Democrat - the 23-member study committee heard hours of testimony Thursday from an INDOT official.

Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, injected a note of skepticism, saying federal transportation dollars from Congress will only cover "maintenance and preservation" of existing transportation systems.

If two Indiana communities wanted to create a new mass-transit link, they should not assume that the state or federal dollars would pick up the tab.

"It's going to have to be funded (regionally) through them - through, I assume, the individuals that are going to utilize the service - rather than the state being able to provide assistance in that regard, because we're not getting it from the feds," he said.

For hours, INDOT legislative liaison Chris Kiefer educated lawmakers on the various streams of funding from federal and state government that support transportation projects.

Kiefer emphasized that mass transit - which in Indiana typically has meant bus service - is primarily a regional issue, between communities. "INDOT doesn't run your local street network; we don't run your local transit network, either," Kiefer said. "We are responsible for certain aspects of the transit puzzle, but we are not the only directors of transit."

Austin, D-Anderson, said she interpreted that as INDOT considering mass transit a regional, not a statewide, problem. "And I couldn't disagree with you more," she told Kiefer.

"I truly believe that if we're going to have a strong, viable transportation infrastructure, then INDOT is going to have to take a more active, supportive role in helping regions come up with the solutions to these problems - because we share these problems," Austin said.

"When I look at mass transportation that is viable and thriving in other states, I know that in many of them, it's not because people at a regional level got together and passed a tax. Their state said, 'This is a priority.' And that's a public policy discussion this committee wants to have."

The committee, officially known as the Joint Committee on Mass Transit and Transit Alternatives, was created by a law the Legislature passed last session and assigned to look at mass-transit and light-rail issues. The same new law triggered several other things:

  • Studies by INDOT of creating mass-transit service in six regions of the state, including Southwestern Indiana. The studies must be completed by January 2009.

  • A feasibility study of a light rail line from Muncie to Indianapolis to Bloomington.

  • A program that could use privatization to fund new passenger rail or freight rail projects. The law creates the legal underpinning for the Alternative Transportation Construction Fund.

    It would be similar to but separate from the Major Moves Construction Fund, in which lease proceeds paid to the state by a private operator can be used by the state to build or improve infrastructure elsewhere.

    The Evansville-to-Crane portion of Interstate 69, along with other major highway projects, is being funded through Major Moves.

    When the mass-transit committee meets again Sept. 10, it will hear from former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, considered a mass-transit expert. As governor, Glendening led heavy investment into that state's mass-transit system.

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