News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Business

July 24, 2011

New Hoosier motto: Be less than you have been

The U.S. Army says “Be all that you can be.” Indiana is moving toward a different message, “Be less than you have been.”

But that message is not stated clearly.

Here is an example: The Cline Avenue Expressway (Indiana 912) is a major, limited access connector for traffic going from Northwest Indiana (NWI) to Chicago. It runs from the Borman Expressway (I-80/94) to the Indiana Toll Road (I-90) and the Chicago Skyway.

Along its route are major steel mills, a prominent casino, the Gary-Chicago Airport and dozens of other commercial and industrial properties.

Many months ago, a high bridge on Cline Avenue was declared unsafe by the Indiana Department of Transportation. Truck and automobile traffic was diverted off the expressway onto city streets. The bridge must be demolished. Hearings about building a new bridge were held and INDOT decided it was too expensive. Instead they proposed a “permanent detour.”

In effect, INDOT was saying, contrary to the clearly stated choice of the public in Northwest Indiana, the costs exceeded the benefits. Benefits to whom? Costs to whom?

The major beneficiaries of the Cline Avenue Expressway are the people and businesses of Northwest Indiana.

The costs of rebuilding would fall on residents of the entire state.

Federal funds likely would pay 80 percent of the cost for this major reconstruction. NWI leaders represent this as meaning Indiana pays for only 20 percent of the project.

This is true only if the feds increase the funds allocated to Indiana by the cost of the Cline Avenue project.

If, however, that 80 percent is taken from an existing, limited grant of money to Indiana for road construction, then other projects in the state will not be built or will be delayed.

In that case, citizens in other parts of Indiana would bear the costs of Cline Avenue in the form of reduced benefits for themselves.

The INDOT decision not to restore Cline Avenue was a blow to the people of NWI. It reinforced and increased their feelings of alienation from the state. To the apparent rescue comes Governor Mitch Daniels.

Last week, the Governor told reporters that it is not too late to consider a plan for rebuilding Cline Avenue. All that is necessary is a financing plan put together by NWI. The region is being called upon to fund the rebuilding of a state road. Imagine telling the people of Clark County to come up with money for a new bridge over the Ohio River. Or tell Evansville and all the counties north to Indianapolis that they must come up with funding for I-69. Not all of the money, but enough to convince the state that the project is “worthwhile”.

One of the casinos did offer $35 million toward the restoration of Cline Avenue, but backed down when Illinois started rumbling again about permitting open gambling in Chicago — a major competitive challenge to Indiana’s Lake Michigan boats.

Two issues are raised by this example: First, is Indiana moving toward taxing those who benefit directly from public projects? If so, the time has come for tolls on our major interstates and congestion pricing on our busiest streets. Users would pay, in part or in full, for parks and libraries. This policy also requires parents to pay more for their children’s education (have you looked at the state voucher program?).

Second, are we preparing Indiana to become less than it has been by reducing maintenance and repair of infrastructure? Is this how we cope with slow population growth and declining relative income? This then is the legacy we leave for our successors: a slow, cancerous disfiguration of Indiana achieved by accepting neglect.

Morton Marcus is an independent economist, speaker, and writer formerly with IU’s Kelley School of Business.

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