"We don’t need another highway

Now we see the benefits that come from our governor’s insistence on sleeping in his own bed up there in Geist rather than that government bed down here on Meridian Street. There’s nothing like a little rapid eye movement to restart a state CEO’s creative engines.

In this case, it seems the gov was dreaming about how to come up with the dough to pay for the I-69 extension from Evansville to Indianapolis — the NAFTA highway. Supposedly this was going to be taken care of with money raised by leasing the Northwest Indiana Toll Road combined with tolls charged on the new stretch between Martinsville and Evansville.

No more.

The day after the election, Gov. Daniels came forth with his latest inspiration: a 75-mile toll road that would loop around the south and east sides of Indianapolis. Yes, now the state would get not one super highway, but two! And the money generated by the new toll road would allow people to drive the entire length of the I-69 extension for free.

It appears the governor takes this state’s automotive heritage seriously. Campaigning in that RV was a clue, but who knew he harbored a desire to turn our state into a virtual shrine to carburetion?

The governor calls his plan “the next bold step forward,” which makes this scheme sound a little like the introduction to a ’60s Star Trek episode. That also happens to be the era when building superhighways was considered avant-garde transportation policy.

But it’s not the ’60s anymore. Cars don’t have tailfins and gas doesn’t cost 50 cents a gallon. Believe it or not, it’s the 21st century and, given the high price of gasoline, congestion on the roads and the pollution and ill health caused by burning fossil fuels, state governments elsewhere are trying to find new ways to move people and goods from one place to another.

Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin are developing high-speed rail plans to connect cities in their respective states and, better yet, to cross state lines in what could become a regional system. The Midwest Regional Rail System could involve as many as nine Midwestern states. The plan connects existing, slower rights-of-way to new high-speed corridors with a Chicago hub. Trains traveling at 110 mph would carry passengers to Kansas City, Des Moines, Minneapolis and Indianapolis, among other destinations. This project would cost $7.7 billion over 10 years and be financed through an 80/20 federal-state funding formula comparable to those used for financing highways and airports. It’s a visionary project that has transportation planners in neighboring states openly developing strategies to upgrade their rail lines.

In Illinois, the General Assembly has voted to expand rail service between Chicago, Springfield/St. Louis, Champaign/Carbondale and Quincy.

Plans are afoot in Michigan for the state to begin working with Amtrak on a plan to raise the speed of trains between Kalamazoo and the Indiana border from 79 to 95 miles per hour.

Wisconsin is building new train stations in Milwaukee and at General Mitchell International Airport, while laying the groundwork for a Madison-Milwaukee rail connection.

And it’s not as though the demand for rail isn’t evident in Indiana. In the Region, South Shore ridership between South Bend and Chicago hit a 49-year high this year, carrying 4.1 million passengers on a single line. This increase is expected to hold up even as construction on Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway is completed. “Given what we see with energy costs and parking costs, we expect we will see that for the long term,” said Gerald Hanas of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD).

Not surprisingly, the NICTD wants to buy some new cars to handle these crowds. Last May they projected that they could count on INDOT, Indiana’s transportation department, for $31.2 million to help cover costs. After all, the governor was talking about how leasing the toll road in Northwest Indiana was going to net the state $3.8 billion for transportation projects. But not for rail. It appears the state’s support for the South Shore has been cut to $3 million.

The governor wants to build another highway.

This, of course, is good news for the state’s road building lobby and concrete contractors. The new tollway will cost about $1.5 billion to build and take about 10 years to complete. But if the issue is jobs, there’s no real reason to privilege highway projects over rail. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that for every billion dollars invested in rail projects, 47,000 jobs are created. In the meantime, you get a form of transportation that’s quick, comparatively clean and free of the hassles associated with air travel and gridlock.

But that won’t keep our governor from dreaming that this is 1966, not 2006, and that what Indiana needs is another concrete corridor.




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