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July 9, 2014

Detour ahead

Commission turns in ‘wish list’ for future Indiana road, bridge work

INDIANAPOLIS — A panel of public and private officials is calling for $10 billion in projects to upgrade Indiana’s aging roads and bridges, but its members concede there’s no money to pay for it all.

On Wednesday, Gov. Mike Pence’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation Infrastructure released a long wish list of “critical” projects that includes adding travel lanes to the state’s most crowded arteries – Interstates 70 and 65 – as they pass through rural areas.

Also on the list of projects deemed essential to the state’s economic growth are improving Interstate 69 across the Ohio River bridge in southwest Indiana, and a new four-lane divided highway to loop around Indianapolis so that drivers can avoid the crowded bypass that already exists.

Pence, who appointed the commission last year, praised its work as a step toward improving the state’s infrastructure.

“If you’re going to welcome people to Indiana with signs that say we’re the ‘Crossroads of America,’ you better have the roads to back it up,” he said.

But Pence acknowledged that funding remains elusive. He said the state Department of Transportation is engaged in a two-year study of road needs and ways to pay for them.

The panel’s report notes about $600 million of the $1 billion annual highway fund is spent just to maintain the current road system.

And the pot is getting smaller.

“Taking care of what we have is becoming increasingly difficult due to declining revenues,” the panel reported. “Long-term revenue forecasts for the state highway fund indicate that the revenue is not sustainable over the long term.”

Road revenues, taken from the gas tax, are dropping for two reasons – less travel by motorists and better fuel mileage.

The panel called on the Legislature to consider new sources of funding including a new “user fee” added to the cost of a license plate. The panel asked lawmakers to stop diverting current gas-tax revenues into the general fund. And it asked legislators to consider a new “vehicle miles traveled tax,” which would require drivers to install a device to track mileage, with a tax tied to how far they’ve traveled.

The 23-member panel, headed by Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, included a range of business leaders and public officials. The mayors of Evansville, Fort Wayne and Gary were on the panel, along with some major users of Indiana highways, including the CEO of Monarch Beverage, the largest beer and wine distributor in Indiana.

The recommendations were received with skepticism by state Rep. Ed Soliday, the Republican chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee.

Soliday questioned some of the report’s conclusions, including the economic benefits of its priority projects. The panel said the work will create thousands of new jobs and add millions to personal incomes.

Soliday also said legislators may hesitate to approve new funding for any of the state’s highway projects if there isn’t enough money for 88,000 miles of county and city roads.

“When we think about funding, we’ve got to talk about how we’re going to take care of our local roads, too,” Soliday said.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indiana

mediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @Maureen

Hayden.

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