Slogans and declarations from the governor's office and the Statehouse matter little if the words distort reality.
Indiana's "Next Level Roads Initiative" under new Gov. Eric Holcomb signals a refreshing change toward necessary action. The 20-year program to revive the state's aging, neglected interstates, highways, county roads, city streets and bridges marks a properly broad step forward for a state billed as the "Crossroads of America."
Holcomb and the Indiana Department of Transportation unveiled the first five-year segment of the program Thursday. Fittingly, the governor's announcement tour included a stop in Terre Haute, the original "Crossroads of America," where the coast-to-coast Interstate 70 and U.S. 40 bisect the north-south cross-country route, U.S. 41. Holcomb explained the importance of implementing a 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax to fund the upgrades, which total $4.7 billion in the first five years. He lauded the support of the Legislature, which previously shied away from anything beyond Band-Aid fixes.
The inaction manifested in crumbling infrastructure statewide, including a hole in an I-70 overpass at Terre Haute that left U.S. 41 visible below last year.
"The gas tax is the user fee that is helping us pay for what we are using, and there is nothing more conservative than that," Holcomb said, standing beside the ongoing 641 bypass project. "For too long, for projects, we did not have the money to pay for them. This is the exact right approach that doesn't leave that debt burden on our children or our grandchildren into the future."
It is equally irresponsible to leave eroding roads and bridges to future generations, and Indiana has been on course to do just that for years. The state's gas tax has not changed since 2003. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave Indiana a D-plus grade. Of course, Hoosiers already knew that, having driven over highway lanes with a steady rhythm of bumps day after day.
In a state governed by a Statehouse more inclined to tax individuals than corporations, the gas tax increase from 18 to 28 cents per gallon carries some sting. So does the $15-per-vehicle registration fee (which rises to $150 for electric vehicles). Still, the plan was enacted by a Legislature with a Republican super majority, preserved overwhelmingly in the 2016 election. Their chosen funding mechanism can be debated, but the need is not debatable. If Indiana wants good roads, the state must pay for them.
Vigo County, in particular, will benefit from its $30.5 million slice of the first five-year phase. Upgrades are planned for bridges over the Wabash River, and over I-70 and U.S. 41, and to Indiana 159 and other local roadways. Comparisons between counties' funding allotments are inevitable, but the variations appear project-driven. Vermillion County will receive $35.7 million in upgrades, but that includes major bridge replacements on Indiana 63. Likewise, Morgan (with $286.8 million) and Johnson ($177.1 million) counties rank among the top three recipients alongside metropolitan Marion County ($251.2), but the majority will fund the completion of Interstate 69.
Also, the plan allots $342 million annually for roads and bridges in cities, towns and counties. Community infrastructure in Indiana is in dire need of renovation. The steady funding is crucial because highways, streets and bridges require perpetual attention.
The state can now focus on efficiency in implementing the road improvements and planning for the following 15 years of the project. At some point, Indiana's "Crossroads of America" motto will become evident in a smooth ride over Hoosier highways, instead of a phrase to be snickered at.