By Adam Aasen
Since Hamilton Co. is the wealthiest county in the state, experts say it can sometimes be hard for the average person to see the benefit of mass transit. If residents own multiple cars and don’t need to take a bus, they may not see why taxpayer-subsidized routes heading north of 96th Street are necessary.
But lack of mass transit can affect people in ways they don’t realize.
“Next time you are at the grocery store and lanes aren’t open and you see long lines in the store, that’s probably because the store couldn’t find enough employees to hire,” said Nate Lichti, executive director of the Hamilton Co. Area Neighborhood Development, Inc. “That’s because of a lack of affordable housing or mass transit.”
Lichti said the average cost of housing in Hamilton Co. means a resident statistically needs to earn around $18 per hour to afford to live in the county. With many workers making $9 or $10 per hour for many entry-level jobs, these employees must commute from outside the county. But without mass transit, it can make travel less than reliable at times.
This is the message many pro-mass transit advocates are telling elected officials and decision-makers: mass transit is needed so companies can hire additional employees.
Mo Merhoff, president of OneZone, which combines the chambers of commerce of Carmel and Fishers, said Hamilton Co.’s unemployment is around 3 percent while Marion Co.’s is usually around double that figure. For 2014, statistics show that Hamilton Co.’s rate was 4.5 percent compared to 6.4 percent for Marion Co.
“With those numbers, it’s almost like most people in our county who are looking for a job can’t find a job,” Merhoff said. “So our businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, are often in a situation where they have job openings they need to fill.”
Cindy Benedict, project manager for Indy Connect Engagement and convener of the Hamilton Co. Transit Forum, said it’s not just low-income workers, but many middle class employees who rely on mass transit, as well.
“The price point for housing in Hamilton Co., for many reasons, is higher than people in tourism or retail or hospitality or the medical field may make,” she said.
Benedict said mass transit could also make Hamilton Co. more attractive to corporate headquarters that are looking to relocate. She said the cities that Fishers, Carmel Noblesville and Westfield compete against often have strong mass transit systems and site selectors see that as a positive amenity for employees.
“I believe that greater Indianapolis is the only regional area this size without something underway,” Merhoff said.
While the two issues of affordable housing and mass transit are connected when it comes to attracting employees, Lichti cautioned people about pitting the two ideas against each other.
“I think it’s not an ‘either, or’ situation,” he said. “It’s ‘both, and.’”