Leaders driven to finish road linking Interstates 74, 70

A story last week on page 17 should have said the town of Plainfield provided $7 million to extend the Ronald Reagan Parkway
                     from U.S. 40 to County Road 200S. Hendricks County spent a combination of county and federal funds to build other portions
                     of the road.

As a Hendricks County native, Eric Wathen would like to shop more often in Plainfield, but Metropolis, the town’s mall-and-movie spot, isn’t easy to reach from his home in Brownsburg.

"We can get to the Castleton area as fast as we can get to Plainfield," Wathen said.

Recently elected as a Hendricks County commissioner, Wathen says his top priority is to complete the long-promised Ronald Reagan Parkway, which would open a congestion-free path through the suburbs of Brownsburg, Avon and Plainfield.

The county’s ultimate goal is to create a link between Interstate 74 and Interstate 70, turning the roadway into a magnet for economic development.

Greg Guerrettaz, president of Bloomington-based Financial Solutions Group, a consultant to the county, estimates that every mile of a completed parkway would attract $50 million in private investment and create 100 jobs.

The business community is equally expectant.

"There’s a convergence of a lot of different ideas and people focused on getting this road finished," said Abigail Hohmann, a principal with commercial real estate brokerage Colliers Turley Martin Tucker. "That’s a good thing. The connectivity between I-70 and I-74 is good for development."

Wathen, 34, said the piecemeal approach has cost the county over the years. He said it’s only common sense to finish the job as soon as possible.

"If we would have built it in ’95, when they first started talking about it, it would’ve cost $20 million," Wathen said. "Now we have sections that cost that much."

The town of Plainfield provided $7 million to extend the Ronald Reagan Parkway from U.S. 40 to County Road 200S. To date, Hendricks County has spent a combination of county and federal funds to build other portions of the road.

The remaining three sections would cost an estimated $36.5 million, and officials are still trying to cobble together the financing plan. But because of some shrewd maneuvering, the county could land federal economic stimulus money to build a key link in Avon.

The Avon section would run one mile south from notoriously congested U.S. 36 to Morris Street, and cost $12.5 million. What makes it crucial—and expensive—is bridging the CSX rail line, which creates periodic blockades as freight trains cross State Road 267, the county’s sole north-south route.

Because the county designed the parkway to meet federal standards, County Engineer John Ayers hopes to land some of the $5 billion expected to be headed for Indiana.

"We could be ready to go to a [bid] letting in 90 days," Ayers said.

The county paid for its prep work in Avon with a $600,000 earmark obtained by U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer. When the federal money came through more than three years ago, Ayers wasn’t even sure how the county would finance construction on each of the sections he was designing.

"We’ve really struggled with convincing the state we’re serious about this project, and that it will have a regional impact," Ayers said. "Every time we get another mile built, and we make another connection, it’s easier to convince them."

Hendricks County could fi nance the Avon section without federal money. The plan would require a wheel-tax increase, refinancing a TIF district, and an additional $2 million from Avon.

Last fall, the towns of Brownsburg, Avon and Plainfield agreed to funnel their shares of any additional wheel-tax proceeds for the parkway. (The tax increase has not yet gone to the County Commission as a formal proposal.)

Avon Town Manager Tom Klein, who has been working with Wathen on a parkway task force, said the TIF district along U.S. 36 might not bring in as much as the town had hoped early in 2008, when the economy was more robust.

"The last year, we gained some momentum on at least trying to figure something out," Klein said.

County Administrator Mike Graham said he’s working on additional financing scenarios that, if agreed upon by the towns, could raise more than $34 million.

One would require the towns to reallocate economic development income taxes. It also would require cash contributions from the county, Brownsburg and the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

"The county—and I believe the towns are, too—[is] committed to coming up with local dollars to make this happen," he said. "We need to keep hammering on how we get there."

Road to nowhere

The parkway has gone unfinished for so long that the first mile of pavement, laid from U.S. 36 to County Road 100N in 1996, is starting to crumble.

Back in the 1990s, Ayers said, his predecessor hoped to see the entire parkway finished in 10 years. In reality, the two lanes of pock-marked pavement lead to just one major employer, Clarian West Medical Center at County Road 100N.

After another two miles, completed in 2004 and 2005, the road ends at County Road 300N. Acres of fields lie between the dead end and I-74, where last year the Indiana Department of Transportation completed a $17.4 million interchange with U.S. 136.

How much would it cost to punch the parkway through the bucolic setting and join I-74 just east of Brownsburg? At least $18 million.

That sum hasn’t stopped Ayers from proceeding on the design, which calls for bridging railroad tracks and U.S. 136 before joining the new interchange. Ayers’ prep work is underwritten by $800,000 in federal funds, earmarked by Buyer.

The plan-now, pay-later strategy worked before, Buyer said.

When the Indiana Department of Transportation built two bridges over the Wabash River in the early 1990s, there was no road to serve them. Eventually, Indiana started building the Hoosier Heartland Industrial Corridor, linking I-65 to I-69.

"You’ve got to build public awareness," Buyer said.

That’s why he earmarked federal money for the I-74 interchange, which the state placed under the "Major Moves" program.

"It’s like setting a cornerstone," he said. "If I earmark a particular project, it highlights its importance."

The Republican from Monticello credits the strategy to Dennis Faulkenberg, the Indiana Department of Transportation’s former chief financial officer. Faulkenberg has been advising Hendricks County on the parkway for seven years. His current contract is worth $30,000 a year.

The town of Plainfield is already benefiting from the Six Points interchange at I-70, which the Indiana Department of Transportation completed in 2004. Hendricks County then came up with more than $12 million to take the parkway up to U.S. 40, and later to extend it to County Road 200S.

There, the parkway serves a 925-acre industrial park that turned Plainfield into a hot spot for light industry.

The Hendricks County Economic Development Partnership asked Financial Solutions Group to project the parkway’s potential. The firm compiled data on land and building values and employment at the distribution centers in Plainfield, the retail stores and hospital in Avon, as well as businesses along a similar road in Tippecanoe County, the McCarty Lane extension.

In addition to the private investment and jobs, Guerrettaz estimates the county would net $875,000 a year in property and income taxes for each mile of a completed parkway.

While acknowledging that his estimate is not based on a specific site plan, Guerrettaz said, "I firmly believe I understated the benefits, if we finally get it all connected."

New companies always ask about the parkway’s future, said Cinda Kelley, executive director of the economic development partnership. Based on that level of interest, she said, "We know that parkway is going to be an economic engine.

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