Andrea Neal: Bureaucrats Call Shots with Red Line
by Andrea Neal
The author, a columnist and adjunct scholar of the foundation, teaches history at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis. Neal, having most recently served on the state Board of Education, is a former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star. Before that, she covered the Supreme Court of the United States for United Press International.
(May 3) — The first batch of concrete hasn’t been poured, yet the occupants of homes and businesses along College Avenue in Indianapolis see a boondoggle of historic proportion on the horizon.
It’s called the Red Line, an all-electric rapid bus line that would convert one of Indy’s most established residential areas into a mass transit corridor with ticket kiosks, center loading platforms 60 feet long and limited left and right turn lanes. The cost? An estimated $100 million for the first leg, extending 13.6 miles from 66th Street on the north side of the city to the University of Indianapolis on the south. The feds have pledged $75 million towards construction; taxpayers are on the hook for the remainder and future operating costs.
Subject to a referendum, a .25 percent Marion County income tax would fund the larger Marion County Transit Plan, which includes extending the Red Line another 23 miles and building two additional rapid bus transit corridors running east and west.
“Big Dig 2.0” is what one critic calls it. The reference is to the infamous Boston highway tunnel project associated with the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, legendary for his ability to get federal money for his home state of Massachusetts. The Big Dig ended up costing $22 billion and has been dubbed one of the biggest taxpayer rip-offs in history.
“This project looks less like the start of a sensible transportation plan than something dreamed up to grab big grant money,” complains Indianapolis resident Anna Tanner, a Red Line critic. “If the dollars for the Red Line pour in, someone is bound to benefit, but that someone isn’t us.”
Federal System Failure
Founding Father James Madison and his colleagues had a good idea: Create layers of government – federal and state – so that each can check the other when one gets too controlling. The states share their authority with local government, and that creates another layer of checks. It’s called federalism, and its intent was to dilute government’s power over the citizens. Madison called it “a double security on the rights of the people.”
When it comes to transit planning, however, the layers of government don’t check each other; they aid and abet. The feds promise to send money to cash-strapped local governments if they implement transit improvement projects. Local agencies are blinded by the allure of federal funds. They agree to whatever the regulatory agencies require, even if it’s not what is needed or citizens want. The locals get stuck paying for the project long after federal funding dries up. As the late economist Milton Friedman famously said, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”
In order to secure money, agencies write grant applications carefully tailored so that each element matches federal criteria. They then solicit letters of support from business leaders, community organizations and elected officials, especially congressmen, who typically are quick to lend their names to something that brings money home to their districts.
By the time plans go public, momentum is already on the side of a project – no matter how costly. This puts citizen-critics in the thorny spot of having to connect the dots, inform fellow citizens, and mount a credible campaign against something that movers-and-shakers have already deemed worthy.
That’s the position Lee Lange found herself in when she started digging into the details of the Red Line. Lange manages a commercial building along the route and fears her tenants may not survive months of construction work outside their door. She’s been calling City-County Councilors and officials at IndyGo, the city’s transit agency, to register her concerns.
Especially frustrating for citizens is the sense that bureaucrats set policy first and seek buy-in from the public after the fact, instead of the other way around. “These are agency heads – lifelong bureaucrats – who have no accountability,” Lange notes.
Consider the chronology of the Red Line. In 2014, the Indiana General Assembly passed Senate Enrolled Act 176, which created a mechanism for transit agencies like IndyGo to raise taxes for rapid transit and other system improvements.
In April 2015, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx came to Indianapolis to declare it a pilot site for the Obama Administration’s Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot. The program encourages high-density housing development along mass transit lines in an effort to connect people to jobs. His announcement came with a pledge to help Indianapolis obtain federal grants “to catalyze construction” of a transit corridor. IndyGo filed its federal grant application for the Red Line later that year, and received official word in February of the grant’s approval.
All this took place before newspapers and television reporters had started to scrutinize the project. Most public discussion of the Red Line to that point was part of broader conversation about Central Indiana’s regional transportation planning initiative called IndyConnect. Those most affected, businesses and homeowners on the Red Line route, did not learn of the project’s potential impact on parking and traffic patterns until they took the initiative to request public documents.
U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, a Republican whose district includes the north end of the Red Line, is hardly a tax-and-spender. Her letter of support was prominently included in the grant application, and constituents have just now started to ask why.
Her explanation is familiar: “IndyGo requested the letter of support, and a number of public officials in Marion and Hamilton Counties, as well as local leaders and neighborhood groups along the proposed Red Line route, have expressed support on behalf of their constituents. Hoosier tax dollars, which fund these programs, are typically spent in other communities in other states. I believe they should be spent on projects to improve opportunities and spur growth in our region.”
There is constituent support, though it’s most vocal from those who would benefit from development along the route. These include real estate investors and transit-oriented businesses. An opposition group, CollegeAvenueIndy.org, has launched a petition drive to stop the project and has collected 420 signatures to date, most from individuals in neighborhoods that would be affected by shifting traffic. They have passed their concerns on to Brooks in Washington.
Too Many Cooks
Joseph Postell, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, has written extensively about the role of bureaucracy in policymaking. He observes that the growth of government in the United States has led to an “administrative state” where decision-making is anything but democratic.
He writes, “The myriad agencies and departments that make up this administrative state operate as a ‘fourth branch’ of government that typically combines the powers of the other three and makes policy with little regard for the rights and views of citizens.”
His observations ring especially true when it comes to transit policy, which has been imposed top down from the federal government ever since the interstate highway system was developed in the late 1950s and ‘60s.
In the Indianapolis metropolitan area, a confusing assortment of agencies and departments – often mandated by the feds and staffed by urban planners — calls the shots. None of their boards is elected by or familiar to voters. The system seems designed to obscure the source of decision-making.
On March 29, the IndyGo board of directors voted to approve the Marion County Transit Plan, which includes the Red Line. In the news release announcing the vote, IndyGo pointed out that the plan was just phase one of Indy Connect, “the multi-county transit vision for Central Indiana.” Who created Indy Connect? It was a partnership of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization (IMPO), Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority (CIRTA) and IndyGo.
MPOs exist in all cities over 50,000 population. These are federally funded planning agencies charged with “conducting a continuing, cooperative and comprehensive transportation planning process.” In reality, one critic says, they are an unnecessary layer of government, a step removed from voters, that takes power away from locally elected officials.
The mission of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority is similarly ambiguous: to “coordinate and define the delivery of public transit services throughout the region.” It’s led by a 17-member board with a majority of members appointed by elected leaders from ten central Indiana counties — again one step removed from voters.
Little wonder that community activists like Lange are frustrated. Responsibility is dispersed among so many different agencies and individuals that no one is accountable for the whole picture. And, much like Bostonians during the Big Dig project, opponents are left pushing a big rock uphill.
How Government Decides
All this begs the question: Who wanted the Red Line in the first place? The local community where it will be located or the federal government that dangled the money? The answer seems to be: a combination of both.
IndyGo applied for the grant, but no elected body voted for it to do so. Indy’s former mayor, Republican Greg Ballard, endorsed the project (as did his successor Democrat Joe Hogsett) but didn’t come up with the idea.
The Indiana General Assembly in a sense enabled the project with Senate Bill 176, which allows the Indianapolis City-County Council to hold a referendum to raise taxes to pay for its future costs.
That’s a bit like shutting the barn door after the cow’s out. IndyGo insists no referendum is needed for the first leg of the project thanks to the generous federal funding. City-County Councilors themselves are conflicted about the project’s merits and whether it will serve the most transit-dependent citizens. “What bothers me is that this IndyGo administration does not care about the taxpayers who live on or around this proposed Red Line route,” complained Democratic City-County Councilor Joe Simpson. “They don’t have a lot of support within the route area.”
If the Red Line proponents have their way, the first-leg will be just the starting point of a 35-mile bus rapid transit corridor that will eventually connect the cities of Greenwood, Indianapolis, Carmel and Westfield. Two additional corridors running east and west would also be built, adding another 31 miles of bus rapid transit by 2020. Erin Tuttle, a Red Line critic, projects the eventual cost to build the system would exceed $390 million, far beyond current estimates. “If the first segment of the Red Line, which is only 13 miles, will cost $98 million, how can they build the other 53 miles for $292 million? IndyGo’s numbers don’t add up.”
The Red Line is unusual because it’s not just a transit project; it’s part of an Obama administration program, Ladders of Opportunity, to change housing patterns adjacent to mass transit. The first step in that direction – a proposed six-story 205-unit apartment in a neighborhood of single-family homes – was canceled by the developer in March due to intense public opposition. Notably the connection between the Red Line and high-density developments has not been publicly discussed since Secretary Foxx’s April 2015 visit to Indianapolis.
The Ladders strategy turns on its head standard practice for locating public facilities. The late Dave Perlini, who worked in both Fort Wayne and Indiana state government for years in key administrative roles, once was asked: How do you plan for new infrastructure? “We don’t,” he said. “We just lay down the streets and utilities where people decide they want to go.” Apparently not anymore. Both the housing initiative and the Red Line demonstrate bureaucracy-led decisions, whose paperwork was generated in government offices with almost no public input.
Randal O’Toole, an urban planning and transportation scholar with the Cato Institute also writing in this issue of The Indiana Policy Review affirms the worst fears of the opponents. He predicts that the Red Line’s costs would exceed its benefits and would likely produce more pollution than it would relieve by taking cars off the road. “IndyGo’s failure to consider the alternative of running frequent buses on shared traffic lanes, rather than dedicated lanes, seems more oriented to making itself eligible for a federal grant than actually improving transit service,” he concludes.
This is not how policy should be made, and it’s not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they invented federalism.
“We are designing our system around federal criteria in order to secure federal funding rather than designing it around what would serve the needs of Indy residents,” Tuttle said. “If we want transit to be successful, it has to work for the people who will use it.”