A push that began more than five years ago to add dedicated truck lanes to Interstate 70 has run out of fuel.
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Transportation provided a $5 million grant to Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio to study adding the lanes to the 800 miles of I-70 crossing the four states.
The study concluded in fall 2011 as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Corridors of the Future program. But there’s been no activity since, which is why the Indiana Department of Transportation no longer considers the project a priority.
The big factor is the cost: roughly $15 billion for public highway agencies to build tolled truck lanes. Beyond that is the engineering nightmare to build in urban areas, INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said.
“It’s more the scope of what would be involved to make it fully functional,” he said. “There’s not much in the way of width to dedicate a truck lane.”
Overpasses would need to be rebuilt along the 157-mile stretch through Indiana, in addition to determining how the new lanes would sync with existing interchanges and exits.
INDOT instead is focusing its efforts at a higher level, gauging traffic flows statewide to better understand where needs are greatest for capacity and maintenance improvements, Wingfield said.
It’s accomplishing that by contracting with third-party companies that provide traffic maps for TV newscasts, to explore patterns in any given month.
So why even explore the possibility of constructing the lanes in the first place?
Well, the states received a federal grant to at least entertain the subject. And the study gave credence to the fact that dedicated truck lanes could improve safety, reduce congestion, and benefit regional economies.
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels supported the lanes as part of his perceived fondness of big-dollar highway projects. But as the economy worsened and state budgets tightened, the shine wore off any push for the lanes, observers say.
Greg Feary, president and a co-managing partner of Indianapolis-based law firm Scopelitis Garvin Light Hanson & Feary PC, said the trucking industry supported the initiative. His law firm serves the trucking, transportation and logistics sectors.
Still, Feary understands why the project has been shelved.
“I don’t think that I-70 is considered super-congested,” he said. “I think there’s been a fair amount of attention paid going through central Indiana.”
To improve traffic flow east of Indianapolis, the interchange at Mount Comfort Road has been upgraded in a project that included new looping ramps and access roads, as well as widening I-70.
New ramps converted the existing diamond into a half cloverleaf, eliminating all left turns from Mount Comfort Road onto the interstate. Ramps constructed in the northeast and southwest corners of the interchange move traffic from southbound Mount Comfort Road to eastbound I-70 and from northbound Mount Comfort Road to westbound I-70.
When all roadwork is completed in the area, I-70 between Post Road in Indianapolis and Mount Comfort Road will be three lanes in each direction.
The trucking industry undoubtedly is in favor of transporting freight more efficiently and safely, Feary said, but not at too high a cost. That particularly rings true when states consider raising fuel taxes to fund road projects.
“Where do the monies come from?” Feary asked. “A highway fund, a specialized tax on trucking. In the economy we’ve been dealing with, I think that would be quite difficult.”
The INDOT study addressing the truck lanes said that, by 2045, 70 percent of the I-70 corridor from Missouri to Ohio is expected to be congested if the lanes aren’t built. If they are, the lanes would generate $36 billion in economic output, INDOT said.
Potential next steps listed in the study include releasing a request for information to public-private partnerships to assess their interest in constructing dedicated truck lanes on the I-70 corridor.
That seems doubtful, given INDOT’s current position on the project.
“There just hasn’t been much movement on that since the study was completed,” Wingfield said, “in large part because of the cost.”•