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Road to recovery

A $400 million transportation fund has Republican legislative leaders at odds over who gets to decide how and when it is spent.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley wants lawmakers to decide how the Major Moves 2020 dollars should be spent. House Speaker Brian Bosma supports a request from Gov. Mike Pence to release the money to the state for current projects.

A case certainly can be made for Kenley’s cautious approach, but current infrastructure needs offer a compelling argument for Bosma’s approach. Even before Indiana entered its most brutal winter season in 30 years, the state’s highway needs were great. Tapping the fund for projects identified by the Indiana Department of Transportation likely will be even more important after months of ice and snow – and eventually, we hope, freeze-and-thaw – conditions.

The legislature established the Major Moves 2020 Trust Fund last year to be “used exclusively for major highway expansion projects that enhance the ability of goods to be transported in and through Indiana.” Beginning last July, the state was directed to transfer $200 million each July 1 from the general fund to the trust fund. Kenley, the primary force behind the fund’s establishment, had a good idea in recognizing the state’s long-term transportation needs. A chief complaint with cash from the Indiana Toll Road lease was that money ran out after just 10 years.

The problem, however, is that Indiana roads are suffering from decades of neglect. As cars have become more gas-efficient, gasoline tax revenue used to fund highway projects has fallen. Until last year, the state also diverted about $140 million a year from the motor vehicle highway account to help support Indiana State Police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. That’s now ended, but the backlog of work that could have been done with the diverted money remains.

Almost a third of the state’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the Build Indiana Council. Twenty-two percent of bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Those are needs demanding immediate attention.

As part of the executive branch, INDOT isn’t completely insulated from politics, but it does include career professionals who know the state’s long-term needs and priorities. Handing the decision-making to the General Assembly inevitably concentrates that authority in the hands of a few lawmakers. It’s not hard to imagine that projects primarily benefiting Indianapolis and Marion County might top the list of major, long-term needs.

“I hesitate to get into the position of legislating a precise list of projects,” Bosma told Indiana Public Media. “We went through that with (the original Major Moves fund), and it’s very difficult to make those kind of executive decisions in a legislative forum.”

House Bill 1002 is the measure to transfer the balance from the Major Moves 2020 Fund to the state highway fund. It was overwhelmingly approved in the House. Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, was one of only two no votes.

The legislation faces a tough road in the Senate, but Indiana’s immediate infrastructure needs call for a second look.