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MASSON: The Crossroads of America is getting bumpy

October 10, 2015

Masson
Transportation has long been central to Indiana’s identity. Indiana celebrates being a place others merely pass through, declaring ourselves the Crossroads of America. But those roads are getting a little bumpy.

This is not exactly new. Twenty years ago, when I would drive back roads into Ohio, the quality of the roads improved dramatically immediately upon crossing the state line.

Hoosiers are in the middle of the country where our roads are useful, but, unfortunately, we’re kind of cheap. Perhaps that frugality is cultural scar tissue from our early experience with grand dreams of state-of-the-art infrastructure.

In 1836, the General Assembly passed the Indiana Mammoth Internal Improvement Act providing for a system of infrastructure improvements throughout the state. Initially, the legislation was to fund an expansion of the Wabash and Erie Canal. The legislative process being what it is, however, the proposal expanded dramatically.

Vincennes Trace would be paved in the southern part of the state. Lafayette Turnpike would go from Lafayette to New Albany. Michigan Road from Madison to Michigan City would be paved. The Wabash and Erie Canal would cross from Fort Wayne to Lafayette and head south to Evansville. The Whitewater Canal would serve the southeastern part of the state. Central Canal would serve the central part of the state. And there would be railroads.

The improvements cost too much and did not work together. They competed for labor and land and would compete for patrons. The Panic of 1837 devastated the state’s income. In 1838, interest on the state’s debt was more than four times its income. From there, the debt spiraled out of control.

Indiana ultimately repudiated much of its debt, issued a humiliating apology to its creditors, wrecking the state’s credit for decades. Still, the railroads and roads provided a base for Indiana’s economy.

Today, a political issue is being made of the state sitting on a highly publicized cash balance while we have trouble with bridges and roads. The detour required by a problem with the Interstate 65 northbound bridge over the Wildcat Creek was public and painful. It has, therefore, been the focal point of political critiques about the governor’s priorities.

There is more than a whiff of truthiness to that particular attack. Problems with that bridge were caused not because it was being ignored but because of an effort to improve the infrastructure. As crews were widening the bridge, they pierced water-tight soils, causing the bridge to settle and tilt.

Additionally, when citing bridge ratings, critics are not meticulous in distinguishing ratings based on degraded structural components from those with more benign deficiencies involving design elements such as width.

What is frustrating about attacks based on half-truths is that there is plenty to criticize about Indiana’s penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to infrastructure without political overreach. For example, in addition to the real attention our bridge system could use and the fact that Indiana spends less per capita than most states on its roads, it now appears that some of our roads are crumbling well ahead of schedule because highway contractors may have cut corners when mixing asphalt.

While we do not want to experience another Mammoth Internal Improvement episode, burying our money in a coffee can in the backyard while the roads crumble is not the way to maximize the economic advantages of our geographic position.•

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Masson is a Lafayette attorney, author of Masson’s Blog and former counsel for the Legislative Services Agency. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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