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July 13, 2014

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Road to funding Indiana highways jammed

Governor’s panel calls for broad interstate changes, replacement for crumbling revenue streams

INDIANAPOLIS — If you’ve driven on either of Indiana’s two busiest interstates recently, you’ll understand why a blue-ribbon commission last week called for adding traffic lanes to those harrowing highways.

The report, issued by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation Infrastructure, cited traffic studies documenting the heavy use, high speeds and accident-causing congestion that plague Interstate 70 and Interstate 65.

The commission also put a price tag on the fix – expanding the interstates to six lanes from four – at a cool $2.5 billion.

Neither the recommendations nor the cost estimates are new. Calls for fixing Indiana’s antiquated infrastructure are years old, but the sticking point remains money.

Earlier this year, Gov. Mike Pence OK’d the release of $200 million from the state’s general fund into the state’s Major Moves construction fund. It’s being used to expand some small stretches of heavily traveled sections of Interstate 65 that are nearly 50 years old.

Another $200 million may be released after the December revenue forecast, if the State Budget Committee decides there’s enough money in the state pot.

The blue-ribbon commission, whose members come from the public and private sector, called on Congress to get its act together to replenish the nearly insolvent federal Highway Trust Fund.

So far, that’s been met with fierce resistance from conservative Republicans aligned with the tea party, mostly because it would require a hike on the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 21 years.

Even if Congress comes through, that doesn’t let Indiana off the hook. The federal road dollars pay for only part of our infrastructure costs. We still have to find ways to pay for our share of upkeep and maintenance of more than 90,000 miles of roads that run through the state.

As the commission’s report noted, that’s getting harder to do. Indiana spends $600 million of its annual highway fund just to maintain the current road system. With the rising cost of materials and labor, those dollars don’t go as far as they once did.

The commission noted that Indiana’s revenue streams for road maintenance, mostly based on the state gas tax, are “unsustainable.”

 It went on to urge the governor and legislators to seek new ways to generate funds. But both politicians and the people who put them in office may find the options onerous. They range from increasing the state excise gas tax to taxing drivers based on the miles they drive. The latter proposition would involve an invasive tracking device on every Hoosier vehicle.

In the past, when Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, tried pitching the idea of raising the cost of Indiana license plates to pay for road repair and construction, he knew he’d get booed. Some people, he said, “get all bent out of shape” when there’s talk of new taxes.

The Indiana Department of Transportation has been charged with coming up with a plan for alternative revenue streams for the state road fund. But it’s hard to fathom Pence proposing new taxes, after two years of aggressively calling for less taxation.

The hard work is falling on lawmakers like Rep. Ed Soliday, the Republican chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee. He’s led several study committees in recent years, analyzing infrastructure needs and shortfalls in funding.

The conclusion is always the same: Indiana needs more money for its roads. Soliday is hoping Hoosiers see that, too. That’s why he likes to remind people that the average Hoosier pays only about $100 a year (based on the average gas tax paid) to use Indiana roads.

“That’s a month’s cell phone bill and probably half what they pay for their cable TV,” he said. “They’re getting a lot of value out of the tax dollars they’re paying for road funding.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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