INDOT officials say they need more cash to keep up

The Indiana Department of Transportation told the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday it simply needs more money.

INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning and Chief Financial Officer Dan Brassard discussed the department’s direction for the next two years and said they'll be focusing on priorities.

This year, INDOT will receive nearly $2 billion in funding – $600 million of which comes from the state. But Browning said the ability of INDOT to fix the state’s highway system and bridges as needed relies on the state making an additional investment in the department.

“Hoosiers spend $45 to $100 each a month on cell phones, cable TV, and Internet access,” Browning said. “We spend less than $20 for the use of our highway system. It comes down to the fundamental question: What do the people in Indiana want to buy?”

The INDOT representatives informed the committee that 9.5 percent of Indiana’s highways are classified as being in “poor condition.” Poor condition does not mean that the roadways are unsafe, but that they do need improvements.

At the current state allocation level of $600 million, the percent of highways in “poor condition” is projected to increase to 11.5 percent over the next 10 years.

Bridges face the same dilemma. Currently, 6.4 percent of bridges are in “poor condition.” If the allocation amount stays constant over the next decade, 12.5 percent of bridges will be classified as being in “poor condition.”

To combat the gradual decline, Browning said the only solution is more money.

“To get what we established as an internal goal of 7.5 percent in poor condition, we need an additional $100 million (in highway funding) over the next 10 years,” Browning said. “We are currently spending $273 million a year on bridges. This needs to be increased to $331 million over the same 10 years to get a much lower rate of around 8 percent.”

INDOT’s financial struggles are being alleviated partially through Gov. Mike Pence’s Major Moves 2020 plan. The plan, implemented last year, gave INDOT an additional $400 million – dispersed in two separate $200 million payouts – to expand sections of four-lane interstates.

Browning said all four construction projects – many located on Interstate 65 – will be finished by December. And though the governor has allocated money to tend to INDOT’s needs, Browning said the agency is still feeling restraints.

“The governor instructed us to finish what we started, take care of what we have, and plan for the future,” Browning said. “We have great ideas about things that should be done, but if we complete the three things on our priority list, we won't have the funds (to do other projects.)

“We only have a few choices for us when the (budget) is brought to us in these (categories.) It doesn’t offer the opportunity to deal with projects that take longer to develop.”

For the next two years, INDOT officials said they plan to focus on fixing the pavement on many of the state’s highways to make them more satisfactory to travelers. Browning said this plan would make a “big dent” in a problem while giving the state an “image boost.”

But, some committee members, such as Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, wish the department would focus on other transportation matters.

“It disturbs me that every time I hear from INDOT, we have to raise the question of (public) transit,” Delaney said during the meeting. “That is the impression you convey. There are areas in Indianapolis and Lake County that provide economic opportunity through public transit. If all you can tell us is you don’t have enough money, fine. But, tell me you care about it.”

Delaney, along with committee member Shelia Klinker, D-Lafayette, suggested a possible increase in gas taxes to help raise the amount of money available.

Klinker even said that surveys given in her district found 60 percent of individuals would agree to a higher gas tax if it meant an improvement to the state’s roadways.

Browning said relying on higher gas taxes would be a mistake because of the new fuel economy mandates being implemented.

Revenue from gas taxes “are going to go down and down by big numbers in every projection we’ve looked at,” Browning said. “We need to be better informed on how to pay for system improvements and not relate it to fuel tax. If we bank our future on (the tax) it would be a mistake.”

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