News From Terre Haute, Indiana


May 5, 2013

Transit proposals can prove to be game changers

TERRE HAUTE — After baseball, my favorite TV watching is the government channel. Here I can see the local government in action or local government inaction.

I delight in the good times offered by the city council. The folks on the zoning board are frequently asked to consider the most important questions about land use and the future of the community. No reality show compares to these for drama.

Sometimes I will hear a public official say something profound, but more often I hear statements revealing determined ignorance of the workings of the world.

Case in point: the councilman who says that the local bus system should not cost taxpayers anything; the fare box should support the operating costs of the system. The history of mass transit disproves this idea time and again.

Private companies could not make a go of it when they ran bus and trolley systems. Once local governments took over, they too found out that ridership does not support the costs of operations.

Transit systems have been unable to break even because of the tremendous competition from the private automobile, aided by extensive tax subsidies. (Think about taxpayer-paved roads and low property taxes on parking lots.)

That, however, is history. The auto is not going away, yet public transit does have a future, if we do not hold false ideas about it.

Convincing evidence must be developed to show the benefits of transit systems to non-riders. Whether this is in the form of reduced congestion and pollution or better access to jobs and medical services depends on the circumstances.

However, it is the long-term reshaping of our cities that is most important.

 Fantasies about young professionals and their preferences are not nearly equal to the ultimate redistribution of economic activity within the urban area that transit can influence.

The state legislature shuttled to study committees two Indiana examples of transit expansions. Marion/Hamilton and Lake/Porter counties are seeking improvements in their mass transit systems. In both cases there have been favorable studies and powerful advocates at work. However, the legislature is not satisfied. Nor should they be.

The Marion/Hamilton proposal calls for a mix of intensified bus service and some form of express service. Whether this would be light rail or something else has not been determined. Advocates want to push ahead with a referendum authorizing a taxing district without providing the specificity that would give voters a fair idea of what their taxes would be supporting.

The Lake/Porter proposal calls for a major expansion of the South Shore Line to Lowell and Valparaiso. This concept is advanced without consideration of the implications for land use, housing, utilities and schools in the region. The idea would extend urban sprawl and work against the redevelopment of established communities.

In both cases, a modernized bus system might provide more flexible and beneficial services.

Whether the study committees will look beyond the current proposals and give the subject detailed examination is yet to be determined.

Morton Marcus is an independent economist, writer and speaker. Contact him at


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