Bill aims for highway funding

Indianapolis Business Journal

Indiana would receive at least $5 billion in federal highway money during the next five years under a congressional compromise, which could help pay for the extension of Interstate 69 to Indianapolis.

The state would also receive about $500 million over the same period for public transit programs, which local officials have said need more funding.

Both houses of Congress need to vote on the funding measure, which was hammered out this week as part of a long-term reauthorization of federal programs. The $281 billion transportation bill would increase spending to address the nation’s aging and congested highways and transit systems — a legislative feat that lawmakers and President Barack Obama have struggled throughout his administration to achieve.

Where exactly that money could go, and how much Indiana would get, has not been decided. But one lawmaker said the money could go to extending I-69 through the state. One of five routes the state is considering for the interstate is along State Road 37, but state lawmakers have pushed back against that route and said that funding for the project isn’t even available.

“The bill will facilitate major state projects, such as I-69 Evansville to Indianapolis, and provide funding for bridge maintenance and repair,” said Matt Lahr, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana.

One of the hallmarks of the bill is the creation of programs to focus transportation aid on highways regarded as important “freight corridors” in an effort to reduce major bottlenecks and speed the delivery of goods.

Members of Indiana’s congressional delegation said the bipartisan compromise is not perfect. But U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, said it is “without question the best solution to address our pressing need to repair Indiana roads and bridges and make sure that transit systems continue to run safely and efficiently.”

The five-year agreement also would put an end to the cycle of temporary extensions and threatened shutdowns of transportation programs that have made it difficult for states to plan long-term projects. The need for infrastructure improvements has become a political issue in Indiana, too, and will likely shape discussions in the next two legislative sessions and in the 2016 governor’s race.

The offices of U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks and Luke Messer, both R-Indiana, said the state would receive a roughly $500 million increase over current spending, bringing the funding level to a little more than $5 billion over the next five years. Coats’ office estimated that Indiana could receive as much as $5.5 billion, which includes the public transportation dollars. Other congressional offices said they were still reading the bill to try to make sense of what it would mean for the state.

State officials said late Wednesday that they didn’t yet know how much Indiana would receive.

“INDOT is monitoring the federal highway bill and is still gathering information specific to Indiana,” said Kara Brooks, Gov. Mike Pence’s spokeswoman.

The 1,300-page measure was “a mammoth task,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, one of the bill’s key negotiators.

“I expect this bill to have a huge amount of support throughout the country from businesses and workers alike,” she said in a statement. “Although it is not perfect, I believe it is a major accomplishment for our people who expect us to fund a top-notch transportation system.”

The bill boosts highway spending by 15 percent and transit spending by 18 percent over its duration. It also authorizes $10 billion over five years for Amtrak, $12 billion for mass transit and $1 billion for vehicle safety programs. However, that money is subject to annual spending decisions by Congress rather than being paid for from the federal Highway Trust Fund.

The bill still falls far short of the $400 billion over six years that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said is needed to keep traffic congestion from worsening, and it puts off the difficult decision of how to sustainably pay for transportation programs. The federal 18.4 cents-a-gallon gas tax, the main source of Trust Fund revenues, hasn’t been increased since 1993 and no longer covers annual spending on transportation.

The bill is paid for through a series of revenue-raising provisions, some of which have been criticized as gimmicks and budgetary sleight of hand.