Two key events in recent weeks on the transportation front in Indiana: A long-awaited Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) study on long-term funding options for Indiana’s roads, highways and bridges was presented on Oct. 15 to the Interim Study Committee on Roads and Transportation; and just a few days before, on Oct. 13, Gov. Pence proposed a $1 billion, four-year plan for short-term transportation needs whose most prominent feature was no tax increases. INDOT Commissioner Brandye Hendrickson appeared with the governor at his announcement and testified before the interim study committee.
Hendrickson provided a broad overview of the state of Indiana’s roads and bridges during her testimony and INDOT’s study vendor, Cambridge Systematics, testified at length on the options available to the state to address long-term transportation funding, concluding that policymakers need to “decide what Indiana should invest in and how best to pay for it.” Both federal and state highway revenues are expected to decline in future years due to a number of factors, including increased fuel efficiency standards and more alternative-fuel vehicles hitting the roads.
All fuel excise tax revenues from the state’s highway fund are required for maintenance of existing infrastructure; no funding is available for expansion projects such as completion of I-69, adding lanes to I-65 or I-70, or new bridges across the Ohio River. Additionally, more than half of the state’s bridges are in the last 25 years of their useful life (50-plus years or older) and will need significant reconstruction or remediation in coming years.
Bottom line: The state needs more revenues to address a growing need for maintenance of existing infrastructure – let alone expansion of the state’s highway network.
Pence proposes a mix of bonding (debt), general fund appropriations and use of the state’s reserves in his “21st Century Crossroads” plan. His proposal would seek $450 million over three years to be appropriated by the General Assembly from the state’s general fund, $250 million to be used from the state’s reserve funds, $50 million from the state’s Next Generation Trust Fund (established by Major Moves monies) and roughly $240 million in new bond financing as existing debt gets retired or refinanced. The plan is short term in nature and, while tapping appropriate sources, needs the consent of the Legislature (where several Statehouse voices expressed reservations about the bonding aspect of the plan).
The Indiana Chamber would like to see a mix of increased fuel excise taxes, indexation, tolling, fees on alternative fuel vehicles and other tools based upon a “user fee” model discussed in the 2016 legislative session, along with the use of existing tax authority by cities, towns and counties to address the needs of local streets and county roads. Policymakers must make some hard choices with the support of the state’s business community to address the scale and scope of the challenge.
In short, the era of strategic investments fueled by the Major Moves program is over. The prevailing (default) practice of making stop-gap appropriations from the state’s general fund is not a reliable or strategic means to pay for future maintenance and upgrades to Indiana’s surface transportation network. Currently, we risk wasting strategic investments already made, and our roads and highways will deteriorate along with our reputation as “The Crossroads of America.”