Mt. Vernon Register-News

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January 23, 2013

Lawmakers looking for ways to patch road repair funds

INDIANAPOLIS — Freshman lawmaker Alan Morrison knew long before he came to the Indiana Statehouse that Indiana’s roads were in a bad state.

Traveling through his mostly rural, six-county district in central western Indiana to campaign, the Terre Haute Republican was often glad he was in a four-wheel drive vehicle that could handle rugged terrain.

“It shocked me how badly our infrastructure had crumbled,” said Morrison, elected in November to the Indiana House. “It’s not crumbling. It has crumbled.”

Between 2000 and 2010, the major sources of road repair money collected by the state and doled out to local governments dropped by about $100 million. Morrison could see the evidence of that, in roads that had turned to gravel and in gravel roads that had become nearly impassable in spots.

“There are roads where I was glad I had my four-wheel drive because I wouldn’t have gotten to some people’s houses without it,” he said. “What was going through my mind at that point was, ‘What if an ambulance had to get up this road in bad weather to get to that house? It’s not going to make it.”

Those experiences are why Morrison and a Democrat from a neighboring district, state Rep. Clyde Kersey, have signed on as co-authors of legislation aimed at freeing up millions of more dollars for local road repair.

The bill, authored by state Rep. Jeff Thompson of Lizton, would stop the state from diverting $150 million from fuel taxes that currently fund the Indiana State Police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.  It would shift much of that money into local street and road repair. It would also shift more maintenance and repair dollars — about $30 million — away from the state highways and back to local roads.

“It’s about fairness,” Kersey said. “It puts the money back where it was intended to go: to maintain our roads.”

Thompson’s bill is just one of several proposed fixes for the state’s crumbling — or as Morrison sees it, already crumbled — infrastructure.

The Association of Indiana Counties supports Thompson’s bill, but would likely call it a “patch” rather than a fix.

The association points to recent studies by Purdue University’s Local Technical Assistance Center and by the American Society of Civil Engineers that estimate that it would take more $800 million to fix about half of all county paved roads in Indiana that are badly need of repair. The studies also found it would take more than $3 billion to bring Indiana roads and highways up to standards.

Another idea for funding road maintenance is coming from state Sen. Luke Kenley, the influential chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  

The Republican from Noblesville has proposed putting an additional license plate tax of $20 to $50 per car as a way to raise $60 million to $200 million annually for the Indiana Department of Transportation’s road repair funds.

Kenley describes it as a kind of “user fee” that would help counter an irreversible trend: The advance of fuel-efficient cars and trucks that are cutting into revenues raised by the state’s 18-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline.

He also supports legislation that would allow counties to raise their wheel tax, imposed on local residents annually in about half of Indiana’s 92 counties, from the current $40 to $100 a year.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Mike Pence is proposing a measure that would take a portion of the state’s budget surplus that currently goes to pay off some of state’s public pension obligations and redirect those dollars into a new transportation and infrastructure fund.

That measure, met with skepticism by legislative leaders, would mean about $347 million over the next two-year period for transportation infrastructure. How it would be split between the state and local governments would be up to lawmakers to decide.

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