State wants early access to long-term transportation fund

A state request to dip into savings for major highway projects earlier than planned is getting mixed reactions from Indiana lawmakers.

The Indiana Department of Transportation on Thursday asked the state Senate Appropriations Committee to approve the release of $400 million saved in a special trust fund created last year.

Lawmakers plan to put $200 million per year into the Major Moves 2020 fund for a long-term project for Indiana roads until they reach more than $1 billion in savings in 2020.

But the transportation department and Gov. Mike Pence say they hope to start spending before inflation eats away at the state's purchasing power. Pence said the sitting on the cash could cost the state $56 million.

"We have great opportunities in Indiana to improve our infrastructure," Pence said during a news conference earlier this month. "That will contribute not just to our economy in terms of that work being done, but also to making Indiana more attractive for investment by improving our logistics of capacity."

Among the project INDOT is proposing to use the money for include widening Interstates 65, 70 and 69 to six lanes in certain areas. Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, has suggested expanding I-69 to create an outer beltway around I-465. Money also could go toward building a proposed "Illiana" expressway between Indiana and Illinois.

The bill to release the funds passed the House 91-2, but the Senate committee response to cashing out savings so soon has been cautious.

Kenley said he's reluctant to open up the savings early without specifics, although he said Thursday was the first day INDOT gave details on why it needs the money sooner rather than later. Kenley, the Senate's lead budget writer, helped create the fund last year.

"In the argument of today or tomorrow," Commissioner Karl Browning said during testimony. "I would argue we will get value now."

The committee is expected to vote on the proposal next week.

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