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NIRPC wants better road connections

Traffic is shown on Interstate 80/94 in Gary.

John J. Watkins, file, The Times

PORTAGE — Several representatives of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission who attended a National Association of Regional Councils conference this week found themselves in the nation's capital just as policy proposals potentially impacting the commission's future were made public.

Monday, the first full-day of the National Conference of Regions, saw the White House announce its infrastructure plan and its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal.

"It was a very auspicious time to be in Washington, D.C.," NIRPC Executive Director Ty Warner said.

"Everybody's still processing the ramifications of what that all means," Warner said, noting the funding source for the $200 billion infrastructure plan hasn't been identified, and that a president's budget proposal typically doesn't resemble a final budget. 

"These are the launches of conversations," Warner said. "Nobody sees these as being a final product."

The Trump administration's budget proposal zeros-out the Capital Investment Grant program that would help fund the South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor and Double Track projects, but Warner said meetings with several members of the area's congressional delegation showed they remain united in preserving it.

And while the infrastructure plan has raised some concern, with its call for higher local contributions to major projects, "it's not a replacement for the current funding mechanisms," Warner said. "Its intention is to help the backlog of projects."

But stability in current funding mechanisms, mainly in the programs contained in the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, is a significant concern of the National Association of Regional Councils, Warner said.

"We need to have a stable federal partner. Once the FAST Act expires in 2020, that's a critical concern," he said. "Having a reliable, suitable source of funding is important."

Many FAST Act programs rely on the federal gas tax, and "there hasn't been another — at least yet — viable method other than a federal gas tax increase to help pay for this," Warner said.

LaCrosse Town Councilman Justin Kiel, who attended the conference, noted one of the FAST Act's main programs remains a particular cause for concern. "Notably missing from the president's proposal was shoring up the Highway Trust Fund," he said. The fund has required transfers from other sources in recent years as it struggles to keep up with infrastructure needs.

The NIRPC group, which also included Munster Clerk-Treasurer David Shafer and Beverly Shores Town Councilman Geof Benson, heard praise for Indiana's recently implemented infrastructure funding program, which relies heavily on a 10-cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax.

And the idea of a 25-cent per gallon increase in the federal gas tax has been discussed recently, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in support of it and President Donald Trump suggesting he would consider it. 

But Shafer said many of the delegates at the conference picked up on a feeling of frustration among members of Congress.

"The theme that seemed to be prevalent," he said, "was this great frustration, on both sides of the aisle, with not being able to get things done."


Transportation reporter

Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.