Task force to tackle big job: tallying infrastructure needs: Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce leads one-year study

Indianapolis hasn’t attempted to systematically catalog all its infrastructure needs since 1991. Back then, the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce collected a list of the most pressing local projects and presented it to Mayor Stephen Goldsmith.

The price tag at that time: $1.1 billion.

A lot has changed in the 16 years since the Chamber released its Getting Indianapolis Fit for Tomorrow report. Some problems it identified, such as the health risk of combined sewer overflows, have been partly addressed. Others, such as traffic jams caused by the city’s lack of a robust mass transit system, haven’t seen much progress-and the cost to solve them has increased.

That’s why the Chamber recently organized a regional infrastructure task force-a group of 60 volunteer business leaders and public officials from across central Indiana who will spend the next year studying nine areas for redevelopment.

Chamber President Roland Dorson won’t hazard a guess at the ultimate price tag. But he knows it will be big.

“Instead of looking backward, we want to look forward,” Dorson said. “[We’ll find out] what it will take for us to become, on a regional basis, a model both in terms of upgrades and new infrastructure.”

The task force will study air quality, aviation, bridges and roads, brownfields redevelopment and farm preservation, trails, drinking water, rail and transit, solid waste, and wastewater and storm water. Dorson said the report will cost the chamber $50,000 to $100,000.

The Indianapolis effort was inspired by a regular report produced by the Reston, Va.-based American Society of Civil Engineers, which studies and grades infrastructure nationally, said task force Co-chairwoman Cassie Stockamp, president of the Indianapolis construction-management firm Perita Services LLC.

Stockamp said local leaders must begin now to provide an organized list of longterm priorities, with the ultimate goal of swaying state lawmakers to fund them.

“We’re creating a document we can use to start the dialogue,” she said. “What we realize is that the PR part of this is probably going to be the most important [element]. How do we share this so that it’s, number one, not overwhelming, and two, people can dissect it and see that it is manageable?”

The task force has begun meeting and forming subcommittees. Stockamp said progress already is evident. Representatives from all nine central Indiana counties are discussing how their priorities overlap.

“I’m not sure many of them would [otherwise] have necessarily met each other,” she said.

Take Nannette Tungent, mayor of the town of Southport. Mass transit is a particular concern for Tungent, who is also a member of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority. She said Indianapolis-area leaders must show they’re organized first if they’re ever going to persuade state or federal officials to pay for express bus service or a light rail system.

“Unless we have buy-in from the state, it’s not going to go anywhere,” she said. “We have to prove our point, that all of this fits together for a better economy, cleaner environment, less traffic jams. It’s going to take all of us working together, business and government partners.”

McCordsville Town Manager Tonya Galbraith said the task force will help leaders focus on the big picture.

She said infrastructure needs are very different in downtown Indianapolis, where aging streets and sewers need repairs and upgrades, than in McCordsville. It became a town only 19 years ago, but needs to make many infrastructure improvements to support its rapid growth.

“People get caught up in what they have to do in their own municipality or county. Sometimes it’s hard to see across those lines,” she said. “The thing that I think will be overwhelming at the end [is] all these committees will come back and say, ‘We need lots of money to accomplish our goals.’ Then you get down to how you really prioritize.”

And there’s the rub. How can anybody decide whether clean water is more important than clean air? Or whether improving crumbling bridges is more necessary than reclaiming contaminated brownfield properties?

Dorson has high hopes the public will choose, once it is armed with the necessary data. He envisions a series of open meetings and lots of discussion with the elected officials who hold the purse strings.

That’s the only way to whittle down a wish list that could easily escalate into billions of dollars.

“You put it up in the public forum and let the process work its will,” Dorson said. “But those choices will have to be made.”

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