Indiana State Rep. Blake Johnson (Indianapolis)  fought back tears Tuesday as the time for a committee vote came on Senate Bill 52, a Republican-authored bill that leaders of Indianapolis’ public transit agency say could kill a planned mass-transit bus line in his district.

Johnson, a Democrat, watched planning for the IndyGo Blue Line progress during his time as a member of the Indianapolis City-County Council from 2016-2020.

“I feel like I’m in the same hearing all over again, except this time, instead of winning dramatically, I’m losing dramatically,” Johnson told attendees. “And so that, you know, sucks.”

His Republican colleagues, including Committee Chair Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prarie, commended Johnson’s hard work on the issue. But, ultimately, all Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the bill, passing it 9-4 to the full House.

SB 52, authored by Republican State Sens. Aaron Freeman and Michael Young (both of Indianapolis), would put a one-year moratorium on both the usage of dedicated lanes for mass-transit projects and the installation of no-turn-on-red signs in Indianapolis.

Because the Federal Transit Agency ties funding for transit projects to the usage of dedicated lanes, IndyGo interim CEO Jennifer Pyrz has testified that a one-year moratorium could result in the loss of federal funding and end the Blue Line.

Johnson spoke directly to Cassandra Crutchfield, the mother of 7-year-old Hannah Crutchfield, who died when they were both hit by a car crossing the street on the way to school.

“To Cassandra Crutchfield, who looks to us to ensure that tragedy doesn’t have to happen again thanks to significant traffic slowing, and to voters who, by a large margin, tax themselves to pay for transformative investment, this is really, really, really bad public policy,” Johnson told his colleagues.

Similar legislation has been introduced in recent years, usually authored by Freeman. Multiple versions have crossed Pressel’s desk, but this is the first of those measures to pass out of the House Committee on Roads and Transportation.

“It’s never even gotten the [committee] hearing except for one time four years ago, so I struggle with it as a whole,” Pressel told IBJ last week, after a committee hearing included three hours of testimony mostly from those against the bill.

Johnson said the legislation puts the Blue Line “on life support.”

Locals have been outspoken against the legislation, which some view as overriding the 2016 IndyGo referendum vote that passed with nearly 60% of voters in favor.

Last week, Indianapolis Department of Public Works Director Brandon Herget testified against the legislation, stating that the department has deferred maintenance on Washington Street in anticipation of a planned $150 million in federal funding into the infrastructure.

On Tuesday, Indianapolis City-County Council member Jesse Brown, a Democrat representing District 13 on the near-east side, testified against the legislation. At an earlier committee hearing, Democratic Councilor Andy Nielsen, who represents District 14, spoke out against it.

In voicing his opposition to the bill, State Rep. Earl Harris, D-East Chicago, noted that he and most other lawmakers don’t represent or live in Indianapolis, which the bill had already been amended to solely impact. He said it isn’t their jobs to change what Indianapolis voters have decided.

“I have a real problem changing that knowing what people that live here have already voted on and what they want,” Harris told the committee.

Amendment makes bill specific to Indianapolis

Two amendments to the bill filed by Pressel, the committee chair, passed along party lines.

One specified that the legislation applies only to Indianapolis. This came after leaders from transit agencies in Bloomington and Lafayette testified in committee a week ago, citing concerns that the measure could affect future advancement of their own bus systems. They also said it could have a chilling effect on the Federal Transit Agency’s investments in Indiana public transit projects.

An amendment by Pressel that would require bus operators to honk the horn or bell as they approach an intersection to alert pedestrians passed by a voice vote.

He cited the Red Line on Capitol Avenue, where the bus runs in both directions on the one-way street and pedestrians might only look toward the oncoming car traffic without checking the bus-only lanes.

Several amendments from Johnson failed due to a lack of support from Republicans on the committee.

One would exempt the Blue Line from the legislation. He called it both an “opportunity to make good on what the author said was his goal of the bill” and “protect significant investments.”

Pressel said there’s no guarantee that the Blue Line is going to receive federal funding.

Another amendment from Johnson would have required that the state compensate for lost funds with payments to the city of Indianapolis and IndyGo. Under the amendment, $150 million would be paid to Indianapolis’ Department of Public Works to compensate for lost federal funding, plus an additional $5 million for planning costs. The state would be required to give an additional $15 million to IndyGo for costs related to planning and preparation for the project.

That amendment would have only gone into effect if the funding was indeed killed by the moratorium on dedicated lanes.

“The reality is, it is quite likely we would receive $150 million in grants on this project,” Johnson said. “We’ve received quite a bit of federal dollars on the other two phases of this project, and it is an absolute certain fact that we already spent tens of millions of dollars in preparation and planning to move this project along, so those are sunk costs now.”

Pressel said the federal funding is currently only theoretical, since IndyGo has not yet signed a deal with the Federal Transit Agency. Pyrz, interim CEO of IndyGo, confirmed that, but said that federal officials have encouraged IndyGo to begin spending money and eventually be reimbursed. Unless IndyGo no longer follows the parameters of the grant program, Pyrz said the agency is almost sure to receive funds.
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