As a resident of the Hoosier state at this point in time you would have to be living in a 60’s era air raid bunker if you have not heard about the I-69 project in southwest Indiana. If you have been in a bunker, let me briefly recap. The State of Indiana is constructing a freeway between Evansville and the SW side of Indianapolis. The majority of this cuts through rural farmlands and otherwise, ultra-low population centers. The state is funding most of the projects bid to this point, from money gleened from the Major Moves program; the lease of the toll road in Northern Indiana over 5 years ago.
Currently, very little of the actual roadway is completed. It was began in the Evansville area and is snaking it’s way up to Indianapolis. The project is divided into multiple sections each with it’s own Federal approval milestone. So, what that means is that some of the portions have been green-lit and are under construction or being bid while others are not off the drawing board, let alone fully funded. It is that last bit which has caused the low drone of opposition to grow into a low roar over the past year. Beyond the fact that there are several state highways which could have been upgraded without greenfield highway being constructed, beyond the fact that this project was never put to the voters, beyond the fact that legal opposition is being mounted, is the fact that there is not enough money to complete the project without serious impact to other state driven projects.
According to a recent report (click to open .pdf) released by the Hoosier Environmental Council, if the state deferred to traditional funding methods to pay for the the project, it would consume a large percentage of available funds each year for the next 3 years. Indeed,
“Overall, the state’s I-69 spending projections indicate that during the years 2012 to 2014, nearly one-fifth of Indiana’s total available highway construction and maintenance funds will be dedicated to this single project.”
With Major Moves money drying up, traditional funding seems to be the only way left to pay for it; which leaves residents to ponder howother state lead projects can be completed. Indeed, that is what on the mind of officials from Monroe County, home of Bloomington, Indiana. Officials with the MPO there, who are obligated to keep a long range fiscally constrained transportation plan on file, recently decided to leave the I-69 project out of their region’s long range plan. They challege that since the money may not there, they cannot legally include it in the document. The State of Indiana disagrees with them on this account and has threatened to pull federal funding for local transit services there. Additionally, if traditional funding is to be used to complete the project, what does that say about other projects in the state? What of the recently hobbled Sherman Minton bridge across the Ohio near Louisville? Or funding for the other major bridge projects in Louisville? Or the several hundred bridges that are deemed unsafe to travel upon?
It is unclear at this point how this project will shake out. It appears that the stretch of road from Evansville to Bloomington will be built since construction is underway on a good portion and contracts are being bid for other portions. Modifications to convert 37 into a full limited access freeway however, are still on the drawing board. While costs are not available for changes to 37, the vast amount of money it will take to negotiate an interchange once it comes time to link to the 465 beltway is not available either. This is already a heavily trafficed interchange frequented by many residents of subdivisions and trucking companies in the area. Funding this intersection could be huge. For reference, it cost $90 million (roughly) to reconstruct the interchange of 70 and 465 on the west side of Indy. Estimates for 69/465 on the NE side were in the hundreds of millions and have been dropped conceivably for the reason that there is not enough money for that project.
My gut says that some sort of agreement COULD be struck to toll portions of this to get it completed although it could be quite difficult. The recently passed SB 473 which was put into place to promote public-private partnerships to complete road projects, could allow INDOT to bypass the emptied coffers of the state, and instead seek money from wallets of private investors. According to the adopted text of SB473
Sec. 1. (a) In order to remove the handicaps and hazards on the congested highways in Indiana, to facilitate vehicular traffic throughout the state, to promote the agricultural and industrial development of the state, and to provide for the general welfare by the construction of modern express highways embodying safety devices, including center division, ample shoulder widths, long sight distances, multiple lanes in each direction, and grade separations at intersections with other highways and railroads, the authority may:
(1) subject to subsection (d), construct, reconstruct, maintain, repair, and operate toll road projects at such locations as shall be approved by the governor;
There is an I-69 specific portion of the bill however,
“Before the authority or an operator selected under IC 8-15.5 may carry out any of the following activities under this chapter, the general assembly must enact a statute authorizing that activity:
(1) Carrying out construction for Interstate Highway 69 in a township having a population of more than seventy-five thousand (75,000) and less than ninety-three thousand five hundred (93,500).
(2) Imposing tolls on motor vehicles for use of Interstate Highway 69.”
There is a lot more jargon included (I don’t speak lawyer that well), so I sought input from Tim Maloney of the Hoosier Environmental Council to get clarification, and he had this to say,
“I followed SB 473 closely. It was amended in the House, by Bloomington Rep. Matt Pierce, to require that the legislature must approve any plan to make I-69 a toll road (instead of the Governor making the decision on his own). This amended the original major moves law that said I-69 could not be a toll road from Martinsville to Indy unless the legislature authorized it.
Based on the info in INDOT’s 2006 reevaluation of I-69 as a toll road, the only section of the highway that would be feasible as a toll road would be the section from Martinsville to Indy, and that is where the opposition to tolling is the highest. That is why the original major moves bill contained the restriction on tolling from Martinsville to Indy. Matt Pierce’s amendment in effect made it harder for INDOT to make I-69 a toll road. “
This ordeal sounds like a classic case of the state DOT bullying smaller towns to get it’s way when there is clearly a vocal objection to the project. Furthermore, the Monroe County MPO is acting how it is directed to by law. The plan that any MPO has on file must be fiscally constrained; that is, if it is on the books there has to be a way to fund it. Using this line of thinking, Indianapolis could adopt portions of the Indyconnect plan into the long range plan, even though there is no money to fund all of it.
Not all state officials are on board. Another portion of legislation enacted this past session was the Joint Study Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Assessment and Solutions. This committee was enacted to examine and then recommend solutions to tackle Indiana’s shrinking pot of money for transportation in the face of growing needs to improve it; a need that has been recognized nationwide in report after report. It is nice to see our state recognizes this and is doing something about it. However, the first couple of sessions have produced a large amount of what I would call, “the road lobby” who show up and attempt to decry the poor condition of our roads (which is true) and further stress how many more of them we need (not true IMO). There is a good dose of transit inserted into the sessions and while the panel still has another year before offering some conclusions, it has not been without drama already. During the first session, and specifically regarding the I-69 project, Representative Ed Delaney asked if I-69 between Bloomington and Indianapolis was designed to allow the future incorporation of light rail. INDOT Commissioner Cline (who was on the podium at the time) said that he was not familiar with the details of the project’s environmental analysis but would check if light rail was included.
While this project is not specifically urban in nature, it could conceivably connect to Indianapolis someday if funding is arranged to pay for it. This is another classic case of state DOT using it’s muscle and entrenched highway-only focus to carve out a new roadway. Of course, this could all be avoided if opposition protests to route the highway up US41, an existing and wide state highway, were to be used. It should be interesting to see how the high stakes game of chicken going on between Monroe County and the State of Indiana will shake out. For my part, Monroe County has my support.