Indiana Legislative Preview - Transportation

Program: WVPE Features

Reporter: Ed Smaron, Lakeshore Public Radio

Airdate: 12/29/2009

State officials say they believe help from the Indiana State Legislature in the upcoming session will be key to spurring economic recovery. 


District 36 State Representative Terri Austin, Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says she is certain the legislature will continue to work on the major issues of mass transit, including high-speed rail, as well as addressing funding concerns for road construction projects around the state.  Austin says she is greatly committed to infrastructure improvement, which she feels is a major job creator.  According to Austin, Indiana's unemployment numbers are still way too high, and the more public infrastructure projects that can be put in place, the more Indiana residents can be put back to work. 


Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield also says it will be vital to make sure that legislative priorities align with efforts to create jobs through infrastructure improvements.  This includes the importance of freight on the state's highway networks, as well as freight being carried over other modes of transportation, such as rail and in shipping containers.  Another hope of Wingfield's is that lawmakers will be able to keep taxes low so needed transportation projects can be built, while also giving the state's economy a boost. 


Funding is another important issue.  Wingfield says INDOT, in general, is seeking funding for the needed infrastructure repairs and new roads that will help spur economic recovery.  Specifically, INDOT is looking to fund a number of highway projects, including Hoosier Heartland, Fort-to-Port, I-69, plus several bridges spanning the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky.  Virtual way stations at the ports of Indiana that will allow for better assessment of overweight trucks traveling along state highways are also being sought. 


Representative Austin says lawmakers need to address the distribution of federal and state monies from the gasoline tax to local units of government.  Austin says local governing bodies have about a four-billion-dollar unfunded need for local road projects, such as basic maintenance, some reconstruction and some limited new construction.  These entities have suffered recently as monies are taken from the motor vehicle and highway counts to pay for other necessary items.  She says more than a billion-dollars has been taken from local governments in the last five budget cycles, much of which could have been used for infrastructure projects, and state lawmakers have an obligation to help communities with this matter. 


One of Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel's major issues is the I-69 expansion, which Governor Daniels and INDOT officials plan to get at least partially finished by 2012.  Weinzapfel says that some of the work is being funded with Major Moves money, but further expansion is something that will take more work by state lawmakers. 


As far as high-speed rail goes, Austin says the Indiana High Speed Rail Initiative is something Indiana lawmakers have been looking at all summer long.  Wingfield says high speed rail would mainly impact the northern half of the state.  An application has already been submitted to upgrade the existing Norfolk Southern line that passes through Northwest Indiana while traveling between Chicago and Detroit.  Wingfield says it's the most heavily-congested rail line, both for passenger and freight, in the entire country.  Another application is aimed at designing high speed rail between Chicago and Cleveland, with stops in either Fort Wayne or South Bend. One of the proposed lines would impact the cities of Gary, Waterloo and South Bend, with another impacting Warsaw, Plymouth and Fort Wayne before the lines connect in the Toledo area.  Austin says there is additional interest in another line that would run from Chicago through Indianapolis and on to Cincinnati.  Austin says the state needs to figure out how to become competitive for any federal funding that might become available for new projects. Dennis Hodges, Vice President of Business Development for the High Speed Rail Association, says that by January, Indiana should know whether it will be granted the three-billion-dollars in federal funds for such a project.  He feels places such as Merrillville will see considerable new development once the rail line is in place.  But it all starts with the funding, and other legislators say just obtaining a few billion dollars isn't going to be enough.


State Representative Ed Soliday of Valparaiso says both a short-and-long-term master plan for mass transit is necessary if lawmakers really want to spur the economy, and if that doesn't happen within the next five-to-seven-years, there could be problems.  One of the mass transit projects mentioned by Austin is the decision as to whether or not to move forward with the expansion of the South Shore commuter line to Lowell and Valparaiso.  The referendum on this issue was soundly defeated in early November in Porter and Saint Joseph Counties, with Lake and LaPorte Counties declining to even hold a vote.  Soliday says Northwest Indiana missed an opportunity by voting down the regional transportation referendum, which would have created a unified bus and rail system throughout the region.  He says similar legislation is expected to pass in Indianapolis within just a few years.  However, Austin says she feels it was a bit premature for the four Northwest Indiana counties to hold a referendum regarding this issue this year.  She says it might be beneficial to talk to stakeholders and others in the area to see if they would like to bring the issue up again, perhaps in 2011, but stresses it is ultimately a local decision. 


As far as other concerns, one of Wingfield's hopes is that lawmakers will be able to keep taxes low so needed transportation projects can be built, while also giving the state's economy a boost.  Austin says she is also very committed to introducing a bill which will ban texting while behind the wheel.  Wingfield adds that this upcoming session will be a short one, with a lot of the budgetary concepts being discussed in the last session, and a lot of what will be happening over the next several months will be at the federal level.

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