EDITORIAL: Wise decision on federal rail funds

November 14, 2009

Local advocates of high-speed rail are understandably disappointed that the Indiana Department of Transportation has dropped the Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati corridor from its application for federal rail funds (see story, page 1), but the logic behind doing so seems sound.

Competition for the $8 billion in federal funds is stiff—applications totaling $57 billion have been filed—and the guidelines suggest routes that are further along in planning and cover multiple states will be viewed more favorably. If the Obama administration is serious about high-speed rail, there will be other opportunities to fund work on the route, which falls almost entirely within Indiana.

Although the route isn’t in the mix this go-around, it’s encouraging that the state intends to apply for funds for the Chicago-to-Cleveland line.

For decades, the department has been more a department of roads than a true department of transportation. Almost 100 percent of its budget is typically devoted to road projects, with only a pittance going toward alternative forms of transportation.

And roads clearly still dominate the discussion in Indiana. The Indiana Commerce Connector that Gov. Mitch Daniels proposed in 2007 was a non-starter, but a network of roads that would accomplish essentially the same thing—an outer loop beyond Interstate 465—is happening in piecemeal fashion as the counties surrounding Indianapolis lay plans to connect to one another.

Among the many high-ticket road projects on the state’s to-do list is a $567 million plan to revamp I-465 and Interstate 69 on the northeast side beginning in 2012. And of course work already has started near Evansville on the controversial $1.8 billion extension of I-69 through southern Indiana.

The state can’t turn back the tide on all these road projects, nor should it, but it needs a healthy mix of transportation types to keep up with other states. Taking advantage of federal money is a start, but the state needs to make available to communities throughout Indiana a stream of dedicated funds for alternative transportation projects.

Even projects funded largely by the federal government typically require 20-percent local participation, and right now that money isn’t anywhere to be found.

Legislation in the last two sessions of the General Assembly that would’ve allowed local governments to capture a percentage of state sales taxes for alternative transportation gained support among lawmakers but ultimately failed to pass.

Given the state of the economy and continued state revenue shortfalls, the 2010 legislative session might not be the best time to push for such legislation again, but eventually the issue will have to be dealt with.

The state’s application for high-speed rail funds is clearly motivated by the availability of federal money. But we hope it also signals a genuine change in philosophy on the state level—one that places more importance on alternative forms of transportation.•


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