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Key lawmaker questions Pence's road improvement estimates

October 15, 2015

Days after Gov. Mike Pence proposed a $1 billion rehab of state highways, a key Republican lawmaker raised questions about construction cost estimates provided by the governor's administration—figures he said are shockingly cheaper than they were just two weeks ago.

House Roads and Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday said Thursday that the Indiana Department of Transportation abruptly shaved $50 million dollars off an estimated $300 million in new money the state needs to spend each year in order to maintain its existing infrastructure.

"Something in the forecasting is just not correct. ... That's a shocking change," Soliday told Commissioner Brandye Hendrickson, the governor's INDOT chief, during a meeting of a legislative study committee.

The quality of Indiana roads has become a major early theme in the 2016 gubernatorial campaign, gaining prominence this summer during a monthlong emergency closure of an Interstate 65 bridge near Lafayette. Pence unveiled his roads proposal to head off Democrats who have been bombarding him for weeks, accusing the governor of stockpiling a $2 billion budget reserve at the expense of properly funding state government.

The state needs to have a sober conversation about how much improving roads will actually cost taxpayers, Soliday said. But voters are "never going to believe" lawmakers and state officials if "we keep moving the numbers around," he said.

In response, Hendrickson told Soliday she would be happy to discuss the matter "offline."

That drew a rebuke form Democrat Rep. Dan Forestal, of Indianapolis, who later said he was "troubled" by Hendrickson's remark because "any discussion about tax dollars needs to be shared in a public meeting."

The meeting came the same day as the release of a report by consulting firm Cambridge Systematics that found lawmakers need to spend vastly more each year—a total of about $1.5 billion—to keep the state's existing low-ranked infrastructure in "good or fair" condition. Currently, the state spends about $355 million for roads, with another $215 million for bridges, according to the report, commissioned by the state.

That would likely require a tax increase, or a shift in the way the state collects money for roads. That's a difficult sell to the state's Republican-dominated Legislature. And Pence all but ruled out an increase in the gas tax on Tuesday.

But the governor's office says his roads spending plan is a starting point. While most of the provisions would need legislative approval, it could pump almost $500 million into state highway funding in 2017. That figure would drop in subsequent years.

Local governments have raised their own concerns, however. Left out is money for nonstate roads, which account for about 60 percent of the state's paved infrastructure.

Hendrickson acknowledged to lawmakers that the plan did not allocate money specifically for local road projects, but said the governor had instructed INDOT to listen to the concerns of local governments and work with them.

Democratic gubernatorial opponent John Gregg, who has needled Pence over roads spending, has yet to release his own roads plan. His campaign says Gregg is in the process of developing one.

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