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EDITORIAL: Time to dispense of one-off highway funding schemes

October 17, 2015

The $1 billion infrastructure plan announced Oct. 13 by Gov. Mike Pence stoked the already raging debate about the condition of Indiana’s roads and bridges. But no matter which of two widely divergent positions is true—that the state’s infrastructure is in crisis or is in relatively good shape—one thing is certain: Existing funding strategies are unsustainable.

Pence’s proposal would be funded primarily with $241 million from the state’s reserve fund, $450 million in state budget spending over three years, and the sale of $240 million in bonds. The governor pitched the four-year plan as a way to pave roads and repair bridges without raising taxes.

Coming three years into the governor’s first term and in the face of criticism from his political rivals in advance of next year’s election, the timing of the plan implies it’s more of a reaction to the political landscape than an example of leadership on state transportation policy. Regardless, it’s the latest example of the state using stop-gap measures to maintain basic infrastructure.

This problem isn’t unique to Indiana. The move to higher-efficiency gas-powered vehicles and the advent of electric cars means consumers everywhere are buying less gas, which leads to stagnant revenue from gas taxes, the primary mechanism for raising federal and state revenue dedicated to road construction and repairs.

That spells trouble in most states. Indiana Department of Transportation officials said earlier this year that almost 10 percent of the state’s highways are in poor, though not unsafe, condition. At current funding levels, more than 11 percent of roads and 12.5 percent of bridges would be in poor condition in 10 years, according to INDOT estimates.

These maintenance needs, coupled with the state’s extensive wish list for new and wider roads, adds up to big money that gas-tax revenue alone can’t supply.

The quest to fund billions upon billions of dollars in road and bridge work has led to high-profile tactics like Major Moves, the Indiana Toll Road lease that put $3.85 billion in Indiana’s pocket for road upgrades. But that money is all but depleted. More recently, Pence pushed through the Legislature $400 million for Major Moves 2020, which is to expand sections of four-lane interstates.

The prospect of wider roads and entirely new ones, such as the proposed loop that would connect communities in the counties that surround Indianapolis, raises questions. Are the new jobs typically cited as the reason for building new roads the same high-paying jobs Hoosiers need? Is the state short-sighted in continuing to underfund public transportation, which can relieve some of the pressure on roads? And how can we fund new roads and the maintenance they’ll require in subsequent years if we can’t keep up with today’s needs?

Some states are working toward more sustainable road funding by experimenting with charging user fees based on miles driven. Nothing so radical is in the works here, but the state clearly needs bold ideas to put transportation funding on a sustainable path.•

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