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The theme of this week’s message from your Business Advocacy team is regionalism – unifying behind a long-term vision for an Indy Region with a stronger climate for commerce, more vibrant quality of life, and more compelling appeal to people, employers and business investment.  We’re all in this together; we can’t stay competitive with peer metros across the nation if we’re too focused on divisions closer to home.

Regional Investments & Infrastructure Responsibilities
Without frank discussion on local revenue capacity, disparities in infrastructure funding, and shared investments in common priorities, regionalism is a catchphrase without much substance.  But resource allocation is the most taxing – pun intended – part of rallying together as a region.

This came into focus last week, as Mayor Joe Hogsett unveiled a strategy for interlocal infrastructure spending in his State of the City address.  Hogsett’s proposal would capture and reallocate a portion of the future growth of local income tax revenue to maintain roads based on vehicle miles traveled (‘VMT’).

In a sense, the plan creates a regional tax increment financing district, distributing a sliver of revenues for basic infrastructure instead of a specific project (as with other TIFs).  Using VMT would help address commuting patterns, employees who drive to work in one county while living – and paying property and income taxes – in another.

The proposal sparked spirited discussion regionally among local officials, in tandem with another talked-about model for collaboration – the ‘regional investment hub’ concept that would allow counties, cities and towns to form Development Authorities empowered to raise new revenues for capital projects of regional significance.

The Chamber has championed regionalism, interlocal investments and the need for greater equity in local revenue distribution.  We have not formally endorsed either the tax increment infrastructure or regional investment hub approach, but offer two points:

These plans aren’t mutually exclusive:
Mayor Hogsett’s proposal deals with ongoing road construction and repairs, tackling the gap between usage of urban streets and revenues available for their upkeep.

We’ve also advanced adding a non-resident income tax to address this disparity, a more provocative approach than tax increment reallocation that has also been floated in the Statehouse by lawmakers representing Kokomo and other commuter-heavy communities.

The investment hub concept also adds revenue capacity for local priorities, but most notably creates a pool of regional capital funding for new projects.

We need to keep up with basic infrastructure needs and act as a region to make more transformative economic investments.  The current debate doesn’t have to be “either/or” – ultimately, a “both/and” scenario could be the solution.

Regional conversations and competing plans are signs of progress:
A decade ago, discussions among local officials and serious vetting of proposals like these simply weren’t happening.  The formation of the Central Indiana Council of Elected Officials (CICEO) and a concerted effort by groups like the Chamber, the Urban Land Institute, MIBOR and (of course) the mayors and council presidents themselves to foster dialogue has led us to this point.

The widespread recognition that regionalism is crucial to our success, and the recognition that give-and-take on dollars-and-cents will be necessary – even amid debate on the specifics – represents tremendous progress.  Now it’s time to turn the chatter over alternatives into action.

Planning Ahead without Falling Behind
While there’s plenty of debate to be had over the best way to raise and distribute the revenues needed for meaningful regional investments in infrastructure, quality of life and economic development initiatives, one thing is certain – we need a smart, specific long-term blueprint to make these investments pay off.

In Central Indiana, we have a number of public and private entities focused on long-term planning and growth strategies.  Led by the business community, for example, your Indy Chamber is focused on regional economic development and advocacy, while our partners at the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership spearhead industry-specific initiatives and talent development programs.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is the public agency tasked with regional transportation planning.  We’ve worked closely with the MPO on local and regional mass transit planning, and understanding transportation trends across its eight-county service area so we can be more effective advocates at the Statehouse.

The technical planning capabilities of the MPO are critical to a transportation system that keeps people and goods moving efficiently while contributing to livability, economic inclusion and redevelopment potential.

But we’re moving into a period of transition for the MPO, a shift that’s unfolding behind the scenes but could have significant ramifications for the region:

  • The MPO is currently housed within the City of Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development – an arrangement that offers organizational stability and support, but also some added administrative hurdles and misalignment with its regional mandate;
  • The latter issues, in part, have led to the MPO ‘spinning off’ from the City over the next year to become an independent organization with regional governance and oversight;
  • The MPO’s strategic plan envisions the organization building independent planning capacity and expanding its mandate to take a more active convening role in issues like housing, land use, water resource management and economic development along with long-range transportation planning.

As this transition happens over the next two years, we’re keeping a close eye on the process for a number of reasons:

  • The need for a seamless, uninterrupted long-range transportation planning process that supports population and economic growth here at the ‘Crossroads of America;’
  • Continued emphasis on multi-modal transportation, at a critical time in the expansion of mass transit in Marion County (and regional plans building support), regional trail development happening across the metro and walkable neighborhood development gaining momentum to meet market demand;
  • Alignment with entities like our Central Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA) – which is also eyeing a higher-profile convener role – in the prioritization and planning of economic and quality of life investments; and
  • Ensuring that resources are used efficiently, that we ‘work smarter’ without duplicating efforts to develop a thoughtful, detailed set of strategies aimed at a more connected, competitive Indy region – especially as we look towards a new Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) process.

A reboot for our regional planning agency isn’t likely to be front-page media fodder, but the impact on our ability to actually implement our vision of regionalism could be far-reaching – so we’ll keep you up to speed on the MPO, RDA, CEDS…all the acronyms that help make our economic aspirations a practical reality.