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The Journal Gazette

Plan now so Indiana bridges gap

Inconvenienced motorists might disagree, but the bridge projects disrupting traffic in Fort Wayne in recent months are a wonderful thing. They stand as visible reminders of how taxes and fees support commerce, protect residents and enhance quality of life. The worst part is that there aren’t more of them.

As Indiana’s toll road lease proceeds dwindle, gasoline tax revenue declines and federal stimulus support runs out, Hoosiers and their elected officials need to take a serious look at how to pay for transportation and infrastructure. Discussions by lawmakers are an encouraging sign that serious attention is being paid to the approaching cliff.

The Joint Study Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Assessment and Solutions, headed by Sen. Thomas Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, heard about the funding challenge from state officials and a transportation consultant earlier this month. By 2016, operating expenses for the state’s Department of Transportation and the state money needed as a match for federal projects will exceed the state’s highway fund revenue.

The upfront money from the Indiana Toll Road lease runs out next year, leaving the state dependent on an outdated tax and fee structure. Revenue generated by per-gallon gasoline taxes is dwindling as Hoosiers turn to more fuel-efficient cars, including hybrids and electric vehicles. It’s not a problem unique to Indiana, but it’s compounded by the fact that the state has the lowest gasoline tax – 18 cents per gallon – among all its neighboring states. Indiana’s vehicle and motor carrier fees generated $219 million last year – less than half of Kentucky’s revenue, the next-lowest state.

The good news is that there are new ideas and options. Some states are exploring taxes on vehicle-miles traveled, so that motorists who drive the most pay the most. Indiana also could stop using gasoline tax revenue for Bureau of Motor Vehicle and Indiana State Police operations, although the funds would have to come from somewhere else.

Another option not discussed by the committee is to encourage sound development. Zoning policies that promote urban renewal can help eliminate costly sprawl. When housing and commercial businesses replace farmland, the clamor for wider roads, utility services and schools inevitably follows.

The study committee’s immediate task, according to Wyss, is to make Hoosiers understand the state’s transportation needs and what it will take to meet them.

“We are going to have to step up and be statesmen, all 150 of us and the new governor, in educating people that you don’t get something for nothing,” he said. “If the funding is not there to maintain and preserve what we’ve got, Indiana is going to fall behind.”

Wyss said he expects there will be some legislation coming from the committee, but noted that it will take the support of other key committees for approval.

“Nobody wants taxes raised, but the reality is that things cost,” he said.