April 9, 2014

THEIR VIEW: Fast lane for road projects


---- — Our interstate, national and state highways carry millions of people through and across Indiana each year. Those roadways form the physical connections among our communities.

Not just people, but dollars. One state legislator says “half a trillion dollars of goods” pass over those roads and bridges each year. Even a cursory glance at the continuous traffic on Interstate 70, U.S. 41 and U.S. 40 in the Terre Haute area makes that a believable approximation.

That makes good news of Gov. Mike Pence’s action on Thursday, when he told the State Budget Agency to release $200 million for funding road projects that can be bulldozer-ready in about a year.

That $200 million was part of a bill — now law — in the 2014 Indiana General Assembly that set aside $400 million in extra highway funds to supplement other, more regular funding. The second half of that $400 million will not be released until a review of the status of state revenues in December.

That first $200 million is being targeted, at Pence’s direction, for work on Interstate 65. Lanes would be added to that highly traveled road between Indiana 44 near Franklin and Southport Road in Indianapolis, and between Indiana highways 38 and 26 near Lafayette.

The second outlay of $200 million, if it is released, would expand I-65 from Indiana 26 to Indiana 25 near Lafayette, I-65 in Clark County and Interstate 69 from Indiana 37 in Fishers to Indiana 13 south of Anderson.

While we in Terre Haute will be happy for those living, working and traveling along those interstates, we also are eager to get ours. Interstate 70 — as anyone who drives it knows — urgently needs three-laning.

Fortunately, an influential Republican, state Sen. Luke Kenley, favors a six-laned I-70 from the Illinois state line all the way to Ohio. That may be years away and — at $200 million a year — take multiple appropriations if that set-aside highway funding can be continued.

Such road work means jobs in Indiana, both during construction and afterward. How many jobs is subject to interpretation, or, more precisely, extrapolation.

Pence says $400 million would produce 9,800 jobs. Indianapolis investigative TV reporter Bob Segall contends Pence and other Republicans are misinterpreting a formula and that the actual number of jobs would be closer to 4,300. At issue, too, is whether those jobs would be created or supported. Either number and either meaning amounts to lots of jobs.

It’s not just dollars, of course. One hopes it’s not too much to believe that expanded roadways would mean safer roadways. Surely, traffic in three lanes moving through Vigo, Clay, Putnam and Hendricks counties on I-70 would make for a safer drive to Indianapolis.

So the Pence plan for using extra road funding makes good sense and, relatively quickly, could relieve congestion, add safety and improve commerce.

We’re not as enthused, however, with Pence’s idea to effectively privatize a 21-mile section of I-69 being planned between Bloomington and Martinsville, largely along existing Indiana 37.

As reported last week, Pence is near signing a deal with a Dutch company for a public-private deal to fund the Bloomington-to-Martinsville stretch of I-69. Indiana would put down $80 million upfront, and the Dutch company would pay $325 million to build that section, according to the Evansville Courier & Press. Then, Indiana would pay the company $21.8 million per year for 35 years ($763 million). That would raise to $843 million the state’s total cost for that section.

At that rate, those 21 miles would cost Indiana $40 million a mile over those 35 years. But according to a group called Advance Indiana, the nearly 100-mile stretch of I-69 from Evansville to Bloomington (not all of which is complete) cost $700 million — about $7 million a mile.

Some, including state Rep. Matt Pierce, a Democrat from Bloomington, believe that discrepancy places an undue tax burden on future generations.

Now, that $763 million does make the private company responsible for maintaining that 21-mile section of road for those 35 years, but is that reason enough for the much higher rate per mile?

In sum, the Pence plan for extra funding for road work such as that approved and contemplated for this year deserves the fast lane, full speed ahead.

The Pence privatization of part of I-69 calls for slower speed, perhaps pulling off at a rest stop exit and rethinking.

— The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute