Downsizing and delays in Major Moves projects in Northwest Indiana are leaving local officials frustrated and confused, as they wonder if the much-touted highway-building program is running out of cash.
Projected bidding dates have been pushed back on a number of projects, some for years. In other cases, projects are progressing but have been greatly reduced in scale.
"I'm concerned about Major Moves money, quite frankly," said state Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point. "I mean is there enough money? They have scaled back so many projects."
VanDenburgh was one of a contingent of Crown Point officials who pushed for years to get Broadway widened to four lanes and intersections improved from 93rd Avenue to 109th Avenue. The project was downsized to just intersection improvements two years ago and then in April mysteriously disappeared from a regional project list. It was restored, but its May bid letting was rescheduled for fall.
Northwest Indiana officials are not the only ones left wondering.
An April 25 story in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette found several Major Moves projects in Northeast Indiana are now questionable, and local officials are struggling to keep them on INDOT's radar for the future.
INDOT spokesman Wil Wingfield confirmed that 19 Major Moves projects around the state now have indeterminate start dates or have been pushed out of Major Moves' 10-year time frame. But none of those are in Northwest Indiana, Wingfield said.
Major Moves is Gov. Mitch Daniels $11.9 billion highway maintenance and construction spending plan for the years 2006 through 2015. It was controversial when Daniels first proposed it because it included leasing the Indiana Toll Road to pay part of the cost.
However, the bulk of the 10-year plan is funded by gasoline and motor fuel taxes.
Indiana Department of Revenue figures show gasoline tax collections dropped by 6.1 percent between 2006 and 2009. During the same time, the special fuel tax, the next-biggest revenue producer, fell by 17.3 percent. Collections have continued to drop in the current fiscal year.
INDOT would not provide information on how big a revenue shortfall that drop has created in Major Moves as compared to original projections.
Wingfield did acknowledge collections of those taxes have dropped over the past four years and that affects Major Moves funding. But he attributed the changes in Northwest Indiana projects to situations particular to each one, and not with any overall shortfall for the state's 10-year road building plan.
"Every project is done on a case-by-case basis," Wingfield said.
Local officials skeptical
Answers like that are not enough for some local officials who have cajoled, fought and negotiated with INDOT for their particular projects for years.
In Highland, the start of the replacement of the Indianapolis Avenue bridge over railroad tracks just north of Ridge Road has been on-again, off-again for years, Highland Public Works Director John Bach said.
In Hammond, the Calumet Avenue reconstruction has been downsized to a resurfacing project for its final three miles, Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said.
In Schererville, officials were left frustrated recently when INDOT announced the final stretch of an Indianapolis Boulevard project would not address significant drainage problems with the road.
In Highland, Bach said he thought the bridge project and a pumping station nearby were a go for this summer when he suddenly found out it won't happen until 2011. But he didn't know if a lack of money at Major Moves is the problem.
"The reason for that I don't know," Bach said. "You have to talk to INDOT about that. But we are frustrated. That bridge is in pretty bad shape."
McDermott, who has fought INDOT on a number of fronts over the last six months, said the city first learned the Calumet Avenue rebuild project would be downsized north of 141st Street after the project already was under way at the city's south end.
Instead of a complete rebuild as has been done with Calumet Avenue south of 165th Street, the final stretch of the project will be simply a resurfacing project. Plans for a pump station and sewer work on the north end also were eliminated.
City of Hammond Engineer Stan Dostatni estimates the downsizing of the Calumet Avenue project shaved $40 million to $45 million off its cost.
"Obviously, the traffic has gotten worse in the city of Hammond, and part of the reason it has gotten worse is the Cline Avenue Bridge (closure)," McDermott said. "And now they are cutting back the money we have available for reconstructions. It's a vicious cycle."
Not all projects have felt the pinch equally.
Michigan City Mayor Chuck Oberlie praised INDOT's work reconfiguring Interstate 94 ramps and an emergency replacement of a four-lane bridge on Ind. 212. Both were done under Major Moves.
The ramp project was a lengthy one, but that was due to physical conditions and not any INDOT funding issues, Oberlie said.
Wingfield pointed out the emergency replacement of the Ind. 212 bridge is not the only project to have been added to Major Moves in Northwest Indiana. Both the $75 million permanent detour now being built to handle traffic from the closed Cline Avenue Bridge and a pumping station to relieve Borman flooding were not on the original Major Moves project list.
Major Moves construction also has received a $71 million shot in the arm from the Obama administration's stimulus plan, according to INDOT's website.
Crown Point Mayor David Uran said he understands the lane expansion of Broadway remains on the books for 2020. He said he believes INDOT when it says problems acquiring right of way led to the postponement of bidding.
"It's not a funding issue," Uran said. "It's not an issue like that."
VanDenburgh does not agree with Uran's assessment.
An INDOT project engineer responded in writing to VanDenburgh's concerns in May, telling her the project was being delayed because of difficulties in acquiring right of way. In particular, it had been discovered that some adjacent property owners still had deeds describing their ownership as extending up to the center line of the current road.
That reason just didn't wash with VanDenburgh, who said INDOT has had years to work on acquiring the right of way. And the part about adjacent property owners owning part of the current road sounds like a made-up excuse, VanDenburgh said.
She thinks it all goes back to money, or lack of it, and INDOT should be more open about what exactly is going on with Major Moves funding.
"I've heard concerns for the past year and a half all around the state that the Major Moves money that is supposed to be there is not," she said. "So OK, maybe we don't have the money for all these projects. But even if it's not in Major Moves, this (Broadway) is a project that has to be done."