Small towns want a share of road funds

News Indystar.com August 08, 2005
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Doug Roberts is in charge of maintaining the streets for Monticello, Ind., a city of 5,700 people located halfway between Indianapolis and Gary. Roberts would like to see more lanes on the main street and a few intersection improvements – a small request considering that the state of Indiana maintains nearly 13,000 miles of state roads and highways.

However, because Roberts projects are so small and so easily lost in Indiana’s massive $700 million yearly road budget, Roberts recently made a trip to the remote transportation district office in LaPorte for a public hearing on a new statewide road-building plan, reports Indystar.com.

“Small communities are hoping for their fair share,” said Roberts, who has been overseeing the streets of Monticello for over 20 years.

According to Indystar.com, political friction among different regions of the state is hardly new, especially in the sweepstakes for state road dollars. Competition has grown even stronger in recent weeks; rousing smaller communities who fear their road projects are viewed as expendable.

Communities across the state await the conclusion of an unprecedented effort by the Indiana Department of Transportation to scrap the state’s existing road-building plan, in favor of a new one, reports Indystar.com. Planners are seeking ways to fit the most important road projects into a strapped long-term budget, which state officials say is short about $2.1 billion through 2015. Planners say the smaller projects face the most questionable fate.

The state is ranking each project based upon need, cost, traffic and safety data and other measures, reports Indystar.com. By those criteria, larger projects might score better than smaller ones, though the agency hopes to tackle efforts both large and small, said John Weaver, INDOT’s long-range planning chief.

By mid-September, officials plan to unveil a new 10-year road-building plan, as well as recommendations on funding, reports Indystar.com. They are planning a separate blueprint for road maintenance and reconstruction projects.

“We have too many projects and not enough money,” said Weaver. “It’s that simple.”

According to Indystar.com, statewide projects are almost guaranteed to move forward, such as I-69, which has been debated for years and is expected to cost at least $1.8 billion. However, communities fear that smaller projects could be left out of the state’s plans unless more road money is found.

In LaPorte and at hearings at INDOT offices in Seymour and Fort Wayne, Roberts and other small-town leaders all asked not to be forgotten.

Gary Nale, manager of the town of Pekin in southern Indiana, population 1,500, for years has lobbied for new turning lanes on I-60, the main thoroughfare through his community. “They keep saying that it’s planned, but it seems like they keep changing the year,” said Nale, town manager for 32 years.

In Salem, Ind., Mayor Judy Chastain continues to press officials to build a bypass around the downtown area, which is congested with trucks hauling goods and cargo from southwestern Indiana to nearby I-65, reports Indystar.com.

According to Chastain, the bypass has been debated ever since she graduated from the local high school in 1960. A shake-up of the road budget might finally put the project into the mix, or push it back even further.

In Allen County, Kay Novotny’s biggest concern is the traffic along U.S. 24, reports Indystar.com. According to Novotny, the two-lane road has grown so congested that it has become a danger to children in the 10,000-student East Allen County School system, where she is acting superintendent.

“My biggest concern is someone rear-ending a bus,” Novotny said before a public hearing Fort Wayne.

INDOT’s budget hearings will continue in Vincennes, Crawfordsville and Greenfield. The Greenfield District office includes most of the Indianapolis area and will host two hearings.

Thomas Sharp, the agency’s commissioner, said he hopes to avoid cutting projects by generating more money through higher fees, gasoline taxes, new tolls or other means.

According to Indystar.com, one idea that has been gaining traction within the agency is a proposal to lease some highways, such as the Indiana Toll Road, to private companies, Sharp said in an interview after the hearing in LaPorte. In turn, those firms would pay the state to maintain and operate the roads, but would reap profits from toll collections.

However, lawmakers say generating new revenue, especially through taxes, will be difficult during next year’s General Assembly.

“Next year’s an election year,” said state Sen. Marvin Riegsecker, R-Goshen, who attended the Fort Wayne hearing. “There’s no reason to believe that politics won’t get in the way.”

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