Lebanon Reporter

State News

July 16, 2014

Commission turns in 'wish list' for road, bridge work

INDIANAPOLIS — A panel of public and private officials is calling for $10 billion in projects to upgrade the state’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 65 and 70 — as they pass through rural areas.Several sections of I-65 from Lebanon north are already scheduled for improvement.An eight-mile section of the interstate between Indiana 38 and Ind. 26 will be widened to six lanes by late 2016 or early 2017.Bids for the estimated $69 million project were to be sought this fall. The new lanes, one for both north and south bound traffic, will be built in the existing median, the Indiana Department of Transportation said.I-65 will also be widened, with one new lane in each direction, between Ind. 44 near Franklin and Southport Road in Indianapolis, and Ind. 2 near Lowell and U.S. 31 in Merrillville, through the Major Moves 2020 project, INDOT said.In Boone County, I-65 is six lanes from just south of Whitestown Parkway (old Ind. 334) to just south of the U.S. 52 overpass on Lebanon’s north side. It is now four lanes from there to Merrillville, in Lake County.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 its 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.Rod Rose contributed to this report.

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