Region remains a top priority for state transportation agency

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T00:50:08Z Region remains a top priority for state transportation agencyBy Dan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
March 16, 2014 12:00 am  • 

While much of what the Indiana Department of Transportation is doing for Northwest Indiana’s future is tied to the Illiana Expressway and Cline Avenue Bridge, the region still figures prominently in the agency’s plans for improving the state’s overall transportation network.

Northwest Indiana is second only to the Indianapolis area for the amount of INDOT money spent on road projects since 2006 — $450 million.

Those funds — a good chunk of which came from the 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road — have been used to widen the Borman Expressway, rebuild Hammond’s Nine-Span Bridge and resurface state highways in Lake and Porter counties.

On deck is the widening of Interstate 65 between Merrillville and Lowell. State lawmakers also are considering making Interstate 65 three lanes in both directions across the entire state.

INDOT’s LaPorte District, which covers all of Northwest Indiana, is responsible for maintaining 560 miles of Interstate highway, 824 state-owned bridges, 618 traffic signals and 58,600 road signs, in addition to plowing snow that this winter more often was measured in feet than inches.

Karl Browning, INDOT’s commissioner, said the region “is a big recipient of transportation funds and will continue to be an important customer of INDOT as we strive to serve all Hoosiers.”

The agency has set a goal of having 92.5 percent of all roads it manages in fair or better condition by focusing on pavement preservation and other preventative maintenance. Though that goal may be more difficult to reach this year as numerous freeze-thaw cycles throughout winter produced a higher than usual number of potholes.

Nevertheless, Republican Gov. Mike Pence — who regularly declares that “roads mean jobs” — believes Browning and INDOT are up to the task.

“Karl is the right leader for this agency at a critical time in the development of our state’s infrastructure,” Pence said. “An effective Department of Transportation is critical to Indiana’s success."

The agency’s report on future transportation needs envisions Indiana in 2035 as a state where safe, well-built roads remain a key driver of the economy, even while the total miles traveled levels off as the population ages.

It projects growth in local public transit options, such as buses, as well as better intermodal and other connections to ports, freight rail, passenger rail, bike paths and airports.

While INDOT likely will have less money to spend once most of the Toll Road lease funds are exhausted in 2015, it believes projects targeted at key economic growth opportunities will pay dividends to the state as businesses and workers earn more money and pay more in taxes.

“These investments are intended to provide Hoosiers with the highest level of mobility and safety possible, stimulate economic development and improve the quality of life into the next quarter century,” INDOT declares.

INDOT also is leading the nation in adopting innovative financing options for road projects. While the private reconstruction and future tolling of the Cline Avenue Bridge has been controversial in Northwest Indiana, Hoosiers living across the Ohio River from Louisville also soon will be paying a toll to cross a privately built I-65 bridge into Kentucky.

That $1.2 billion project, dubbed the East End Crossing, was named “Deal of the Year” by Bond Buyer magazine; the first P3, also known as a public-private partnership, to receive the award.

“Indiana’s public-private partnership procurement for the East End Crossing is being hailed as a model for other states,” said Kendra York, director of the Indiana Public Finance Agency.

Pence has said he strongly supports P3 opportunities and will seek to use them as often as possible if they grow the state’s economy and improve the lives of Hoosiers.

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