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SHEPARD: Hoosiers have a history of supporting roads

April 8, 2017

Shepard
Within another week or two, we’ll know the answer to one of the leading questions of this legislative year: Are we willing to tax ourselves more so we can build and upgrade our roads, bridges and similar capital assets?

The answer needs to be yes. And we should applaud legislators who’ve been willing to cast difficult votes to make this part of our future a reality.

The outline of where the General Assembly appears headed seems remarkably to fit Gov. Eric Holcomb’s open-ended description of his support for a “menu of options.” Put another way, the final bill will apparently rely mostly on a short list of new or increased levies that tend to place the cost of roads on those who use them the most. And maybe some taxes aimed elsewhere.

The taxes motorists and truckers pay at the pump, charged as pennies per gallon, have always been the largest source of highway money. As vehicles have become more fuel-efficient, of course, the pennies collected have tended to trail the readily recognizable needs. This year’s final decision will certainly rely in large part on increasing the gallonage tax.

But there are people who use roads without paying the gallonage tax, like those who own electric vehicles. We should favor the growing number of electric cars (and the hybrids that use both fuel and electricity), but also take account of their use of the public highways. Some fees to be paid by them during annual registration would be altogether equitable.

Building the state’s transportation network, of course, is hardly just a matter of loyalty to our slogan about being the “crossroads.” It’s a key to our own economic future and that of our children.

Recognition of that fact has led Hoosiers to dig into our pockets since the earliest days of statehood.

Before the capital even moved to Indianapolis, for example, the General Assembly convening in Corydon passed laws creating ferries, bridges and roads. In both 1821 and 1823, it appropriated $100,000 for building roads. That was real money, back when we didn’t have much.

Even more dramatically, the Legislature imposed a requirement of physical labor at building public roads on all able men age 21 to 50. Recognizing the challenges confronting the impoverished, men who owned no property owed three days of labor, while those who actually owned real estate owed at least four or five days. Most of the products of this labor—ultimately hard-paved during the 20th century—are still in service in rural Indiana. So are some of the largest projects, like the “National Road,” the earliest version of Interstate 70.

And speaking of interstates, our ancestors and their elected representatives employed toll roads to achieve their long-term goals. The evidence of that is visible. At about 4700 North sits the Michigan Road Tollhouse. It reflects one of the most ambitious projects of early Indiana—a road running all the way from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan, constructed in the early 1830s.

That toll house tells a story pertinent to the current deliberations about the possibility of tolls on new or existing interstates. Originally built as a public highway with state financial backing, the Michigan Road was converted to tolls just after the Civil War and placed under private management. The private company built the toll house for the toll keeper and his family.

Thus, if the new highway bill eventually leads to tolls in some places and some times, there would be ample precedent.

Our forbearers stepped up to these challenges, and we can do no less.•

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Shepard, formerly Indiana chief justice, now serves as senior judge and teaches law. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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