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Federal funds speed up major local highway projects

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Motorist drive around the roundabout at County Road 144 and Whiteland Road Tuesday. In the last five years, the county has added at least three roundabouts and at least three others are planned. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Motorist drive around the roundabout at County Road 144 and Whiteland Road Tuesday. In the last five years, the county has added at least three roundabouts and at least three others are planned. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

When local governments have a major road or infrastructure project to tackle, such as a new roundabout or trail, they look to an Indianapolis-based group that is in charge of doling out millions in federal grant money.

Projects, including the reconstruction of Main Street in Franklin or the new roundabout at County Road 144 near Bargersville, wouldn’t have happened without federal funds that cover 80 percent of the costs of projects, local officials said. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization serves as the gatekeeper for $47 million each year and is in charge of reviewing and awarding funding for about 150 to 250 projects each year.

The organization has approved about $76 million in projects for Johnson County from 2012 through 2015, ranging from helping cities and towns replace road signs to funding $25 million for the state to build a new Interstate 65 exit at Worthsville Road. But Johnson County received only a small slice of more than $1 billion in federal dollars for roads and bridges throughout Indianapolis and the surrounding counties.

The organization serves the region by focusing money toward projects that will help improve overall transportation in and around Indianapolis, director Anna Gremling said. That can mean funding projects to improve interstates, widen intersections along highly traveled routes or build new bicycle and pedestrian paths in cities and towns.

As money becomes available in certain programs, such as Safe Routes to Schools, the organization puts out a request and asks the 35 member agencies, including counties, cities and towns, to submit projects that would fit that type of funding, she said.

From 2012 to 2015, more than $1 billion has been committed by the regional organization to Marion and Hamilton counties. Hendricks County has received the next-largest amount at $140 million, followed by Johnson County.

The organization does make an effort to spread money to all of its members as long as projects fit the goals of that particular funding category, Gremling said. But most importantly, cities and towns need to ask in order to get funding, she said.

“Everybody gets a piece of the pie. I always push, if a region or community has a project, they need to apply because they need to apply to be considered for the money,” she said.

Stretches local dollars

Johnson County’s overall total is lower compared with other counties because it doesn’t have as many large state road projects as other counties. For example, improvements to U.S. 31 in Hamilton County account for about $417 million of the county’s overall total.

Receiving federal funding adds to the cost of a project and takes longer to design because projects must meet federal road standards and go through additional state reviews. But local governments have to pay only 20 percent of the project costs when federal funds are awarded, making the regional organization critical to completing large projects that would be too expensive to fund with only local money, local officials said.

“We’re already underfunded. There’s money that’s available to do normal road maintenance work. And, in addition with the wheel tax, that’s made a significant improvement. But attempting to fund multimillion-dollar road improvement projects is just not feasible,” Johnson County highway director Luke Mastin said.

For example, the county didn’t get federal aid to widen Whiteland Road from State Road 135 to County Road 144. That meant the county had to borrow $6 million, which is being paid back over eight years in payments of about $750,000 each year with tax funds that could have been put toward annual paving, patching and maintenance on county roads.

But the county did get federal funding to build a roundabout at County Road 144 and Whiteland Road. That meant the $1.5 million project cost the county only one payment of $300,000.

Bigger, quicker projects

The grant money given out by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization allows local governments to tackle bigger projects in a shorter time frame.

For example, the county has been able to build that roundabout, repair a bridge on Mauxferry Road and begin replacing road signs throughout the county all in the past two years with federal funds.

The county also has been approved for future projects, including more bridge replacements and new walking paths and crosswalks in the Center Grove area.

“We would most likely not be able to pursue those projects that we currently have funding for if we did not have federal funding available, or if we were able to pursue them, it would be one or two at a time,” Mastin said.

Without the funding, Franklin wouldn’t have been able to reconstruct as much road and replace sidewalks as quickly on North Main Street from Jefferson Street to U.S. 31. That project started in fall 2012 and will be finished by fall 2014 thanks to federal funds.

The city received about $8.2 million in grant funds for the project’s two phases. The Franklin Redevelopment Commission has helped pay the 20 percent match on the project because the city only has about $300,000 available for road paving each year.

The two phases definitely wouldn’t have been able to occur in back-to-back years, city engineer Travis Underhill said. If the project had started at all, the city likely would have been able to afford to rebuild only a block or two at a time and maybe not even in back-to-back years, Mayor Joe McGuinness said.

“I don’t even know if the first one would have started. You spread it out a lot longer,” McGuinness said.

The mayor said he and Underhill have made a push to apply for more projects in Franklin because the city wasn’t applying as much in the past. Underhill will continue to apply frequently in the next few years as the city plans to take over ownership of State Road 44 from the state, which will need road, sidewalk and intersection improvement projects through at least 2018.

Most of the projects Underhill has applied for within the past year have been related to the anticipated State Road 44 project, including receiving some funding this fall for streetscape work downtown. The city likely will seek grant funding for other projects, such as intersection improvements along the city’s truck route that will run around the city’s northeast side from Eastview Drive to Commerce Drive, more sidewalk and walking path improvements along State Road 44 and a potential overhaul of the intersection at Eastview Drive, he said.

Not all areas eligible

Johnson County and Franklin have been most active and also the most successful at getting projects funded in recent years, Gremling said, with each receiving about $11 million in federal grants. Greenwood and Whiteland each were selected for about $1.5 million in projects. Bargersville and New Whiteland also are members of the regional organization but have not had any projects that were given funding. Edinburgh is not a member but is part of the organization’s eligible project area, which doesn’t include Trafalgar, Prince’s Lakes or most of the southwest quarter of the county.

Project applications are scored based on several factors such as the improvement to regional transportation, economic benefit locally, safety improvements and ability of local governments to help pay for the work, Underhill said.

Other factors are added in based on the type of funding. For example, a current call for projects is looking for work that would reduce traffic congestion and therefore improve air quality. Franklin is considering submitting intersection improvements at four locations along its new truck route, but he doesn’t think they’ll score well based on the criteria, Underhill said.

Local officials do preliminary reviews of projects before submitting applications to determine which are the best to submit. For example, the county may have 10 projects that are eligible for a certain type of funding, but Mastin will narrow that to two or three that have the best chance of being selected.

Local governments that narrow their submissions help save time for project selectors since typically several applications are received during a call for projects, Gremling said. But submitting an application that isn’t selected for funding can still be beneficial since it will be returned with feedback about why it didn’t score highly or suggestions on how to improve it in the future, she said.

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