By Jesse Kharbanda
Hoosier Environmental Council
Indiana has a number of fiscal hawks among our elected officials who talk tough about ending subsidies and cutting wasteful projects. But when the rubber meets the road, these officials have been astonishingly silent in voicing any concern about the largest publicly funded project in the state — the now projected $3 billion new terrain I-69 highway from Evansville to Indianapolis.
The cost to Hoosier taxpayers is even higher than the $3 billion price tag, though. Our organization recently released an economic analysis — reviewed by an economist formerly with the right-leaning Hudson Institute — which concludes that over the next two years, Indiana will dedicate 23 percent of our available funding for highway construction, maintenance, and repair to the new terrain I-69 project. In 2013 alone, 30 percent will be devoted to this single project.
Stunningly, this doesn’t even account for the projected — and likely underestimated — $1.2 billion portion of the project connecting Bloomington to Indianapolis, or the nearly half a billion dollar Indiana share of the Henderson Bridge that would interconnect I-69 in Kentucky with the new terrain route in Indiana, The state has no credible plans for how it would actually pay to finish this project. And unfortunately, new terrain I-69 proponents have been misleading in characterizing I-69 as 15 percent under budget. Proponents omitted a number of costs in their calculation: right-of-way acquisition, design and engineering, and construction administration. Tallying all costs up, the cost of building I-69 from Evansville to Crane is actually 24 percent over budget.
Pouring so much of our dwindling transportation resources into this project greatly impairs the state’s ability to meet more pressing infrastructure needs. One out of every five bridges in Indiana needs to be repaired or replaced. In Vigo County, 71 out of 270, or 26 percent, of bridges are considered deficient. Across the state, roads are scarred by potholes and some are being ground down to gravel because there is no money to fix them. According to policy analysts at Purdue’s LTAP program, more than 50 percent of our paved county roads require some kind of improvement.
Desperately needed improvements to a dangerous section of Indiana 63 have been delayed. Construction on Margaret Avenue over Thompson Ditch has been pushed back until 2012. And indiana 641 has been a work-in-progress for too long with completion not expected until 2014. These delays affirm that our existing roads and bridges suffer as funds are diverted to building new terrain I-69.
Misplaced priorities lead to unsafe driving conditions across our state for commuters, truckers, farmers, working parents, and the elderly who travel on this degraded infrastructure. We’re also potentially foregoing statewide economic growth and job creation. How can struggling Indiana counties possibly lure new investment when the condition of their infrastructure is falling behind neighboring states?
We can accelerate the repair of Indiana’s roads and bridges while also extending I-69 to Evansville if Indiana converts the U.S. 41/I-70 route to I-69. This alternative is about $1 billion cheaper and far less environmentally damaging than the current route, and that alternative will still be less expensive even if the new terrain route were to be built to Crane Naval Base. Detractors say that U.S. 41/I-70 will mean longer travel times from Indianapolis to Evansville, but it is about 13 minutes longer according to the state’s own estimates. Since the state has no credible plan to fund the Bloomington to Indianapolis portion of new terrain I-69 or the Henderson bridge project, it only makes sense to save a billion dollars and free up resources to accelerate the repair of our existing infrastructure.
In these times of economic distress, it is vital that our elected leaders uphold Hoosier values of common sense, prudency, and thriftiness. With funds for transportation infrastructure declining at the same time the need for repairing our roads and bridges continues to grow, Indiana must re-evaluate its spending on the costliest public project in the state’s recent history.
Switching course on the I-69 route is the ultimate opportunity for our state’s many fiscal hawks to show that they truly embrace Hoosier economic values. Vigo County commissioners Mike Ciolli, Judith Anderson and Paul Mason, and legislative leaders such as State Sen. Tim Skinner and John Waterman and Reps. Clyde Kersey, Bob Heaton and Bruce Borders, ought to pick up the phone and tell our leading gubernatorial candidates, John Gregg and Mike Pence, that we need to seriously re-examine our state’s transportation funding priorities and the financial wisdom of pressing ahead on I-69.
Changing direction on I-69 will put our state on a safer, more economically prosperous path.
Jesse Kharbanda is the executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, www.hecweb.org.