It usually doesn’t get more cynical than when lawmakers sit down to discuss “mass transit.” It usually goes like this: someone needs to pick up a few votes among those in the lower quintiles, and one of the easiest ways to do so is by pandering to the only form of transportation they can afford.

That or a newly elected official, politically naive but earnest, decides he or she is going to finally be the one to bring the Age of Reason to bear on the public infrastructure debate.

In either case, the net product is a show that no one takes seriously. Assuming they’re paying attention in the first place. Which they aren’t.

Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. But I’m seeing some indications that the conventional wisdom, at least as it comes to transportation planning, may be on the cusp of change.

Peak oil meets the end of suburbia

That change wouldn’t be possible, except for the fact that conditions are generating a “Perfect Storm” of doubt concerning the viability, indeed the future, of our current situation. Triggered by rising gasoline prices and the realization that those rises aren’t transitory but permanent, people are beginning to wonder if the pavement-is-progress mindset has come to the end of the road.

Phase one in that realization came with the surprising public rejection of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Indiana Commerce Connector. The public asked, if the solution to the broken beltway around Indianapolis was another beltway, just a little farther out, then what was the endgame?

Or was there really no endgame, just a plan for beltway after beltway? Because if it was, the public said, that made no sense. That was irrational.

Phase two came in the form of a reinvigorated Democratic majority in the Indiana House (a majority ironically made possible by the failure of the Republican president of the United States). Feeling their oats, they held a meeting on Indiana’s transportation future.

A meeting about mass transit.

And we’re back to where, ordinarily, cynicism kicks in. But I think it’s different this time, because of the factors above. I think, this time, things might be getting serious.

Biting the hand that feeds you

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, told me the meetings took more the tone of a “congressional hearing” than the glad-handed gabfest that usually passes for legislative oversight in Indiana. Sure, it was Democrats vs. Mitch Daniels’ INDOT, an opportunity for political theater if ever there was one.

But there was also an undercurrent of gravitas. A realization that this was more than just show-'n'-tell. This was about straightening up and getting our collective shit straight.

Because, while Democrats may find it enjoyable to beat up INDOT, a cold-war relic with a disquieting resemblance to a Soviet design bureau, they don’t find it enjoyable, or politically expedient, to beat up the road lobby.

At the top of the road lobby are the usual Republican operatives, wealthy construction company owners, trucking magnates, etc. But below them is a mass of constituents that traditionally belong to the Democrats. I’m talking labor unions, of course.

And those constituents, those in the building trades (as opposed to those owning the building trades), understand how to make a buck building yet another road in a state that has more than virtually any other. But they’re not clear on how they fit in if we don’t keep building roads.

And the politicians know that. They know that putting the brakes on the road machine could translate into getting run over at the polls. Hence the gravitas. Because pandering to the poor makes for a great soundbite, but every politician knows the poor don’t vote.

A streetcar named Desire

Let me end with a little history lesson. Less than a century ago, Indiana was covered with a network of interurban rail service. It was possible to travel by rail mass transit from virtually any city, or large town, to another (especially in the eastern half of Indiana).

The round-trip cost, in 1911, from downtown Columbus to downtown Indianapolis was about $21 in today’s dollars. Not bad when you consider that a ride in the airport shuttle, from Bloomington to Indianapolis, will set you back $25 each way.

Rebuilding those networks will cost time, and it will cost money. A lot of money. As INDOT’s Gil Viets told Pierce, a new rail line could easily cost a billion dollars.

To which Pierce asked if that didn’t mean we could get three new rail lines for the cost of one I-69 extension? Viets said, well, yes we could.

Transportation and energy are our generation’s long emergency. Not much is clear about the emergency, but the fact that the mindset, and solutions, of the previous generation are of no to negative utility. The transition to modes and systems appropriate to the challenges we face will take time, and it will take energy.

Both of which are in short supply these days, which makes the emergency even more so.

What can we do as citizens? We can give the politicians the cover they need, we can encourage them to start taking the baby steps, never mind the status quo and the conventional wisdom, toward the solutions we need.

That’s our job.

Gregory Travis can be reached at .