Traffic slows on Indiana 49

Traffic along Indiana 49 slows as it approaches the Indiana Toll Road entrance.

The Times

I remember a nervous and trembling state Rep. Jerry Bales, R-Bloomington, pondering whether to cast the deciding vote for a 1-cent gasoline tax almost 30 years ago.

My gosh, a lousy penny. You would have thought the state was voting to pull out of the union.

Yeah, this is Indiana where procrastination is king.

Indiana’s roads were in pretty bad shape back then. They aren’t much better today. The evening rush-hour gridlock in Lake County will attest to that.

And for the state’s Republicans, who ran things back then and do so today, the status quo is Indiana’s foremost product.

But, alas, there is a glimmer of hope. Gov. Mike Pence — the poster child for the status quo — is on the way out. And incoming Gov. Eric Holcomb has hinted that he’s ready to do more than fill potholes.

House Speaker Brian Bosma has sent the strongest signal that majority Republicans, who have been running in place for decades, are ready to take a spin around the track.

Bosma said, “I’m looking for a long-term solution. Not something that gets us through the next administration, but that gets us through the next generation.”

Here comes the rub.

While Republicans are admitting it’s time to do something, they aren’t sure what something looks like.

State Sen. Luke Kenley is co-chairman of Funding Indiana’s Roads for a Stronger Safer Tomorrow.

“They want the roads, they recognize the need – are they willing to pay for it?” Kenley said about Hoosiers.

Kenley said the task force is looking for a user fee-based funding plan.

It needs to be more than that. Those who don’t drive benefit from the goods and services provided by highway users. In other words, no one should have to pay for miles traveled while others pay nothing.

I suspect the task force will recommend a combination of fixes.

One certainly should include a gas-tax hike. The way gas prices fluctuate on an almost daily basis, I can’t imagine a few cents forcing anyone to park his or her car. Or will anyone even notice?

Cars today also get much better mileage than 30 years ago. Those who still drive gas-guzzlers ought to pay for their frivolities.

In a state with $2 billion in the bank for unknown reasons, it shouldn’t hurt to funnel all of the 7 percent sales tax on gasoline into highways as opposed to into the bank.

I would hope the state doesn’t convert freeways into toll roads as is the case with the Cline Avenue Bridge. There’s something about turning a freeway built with taxpayer dollars into a toll road that has a sour ring to it. Call it double taxation.

Yet, I would think a state that has become masterful in maintaining the status quo ought to have the ingenuity to provide a world-class highway system.

One thing for sure is that it is going to take more — lots more — than the 1-cent gas-tax hike that Bales fretted over in the early 1980s. He voted for it and was escorted out of the Statehouse by state police. Such senseless drama.

The only way to sell a highway package is for Republicans and Democrats to give a joint stamp of approval. Without unity, complacency will win out again.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjamescolumns@gmail.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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