I would like to commend state legislators Pierce, Skillman, Koch, and Bray for reiterating the fact that there is no way to fund an Interstate 69 through southwest Indiana. At the recent WTIU Third House forum, all legislators present affirmed that Indiana cannot afford I-69's construction cost, that no tax hikes will be approved, and that legislators elsewhere in Indiana will not give up funding for highway projects in their regions in order to fund I-69.

According to an analysis by Senate Finance Committee Chair Larry Borst, the Indiana Department of Transportation estimates that more than $500 million per year will be needed for routine rehabilitation just to preserve the existing highway system. This leaves about $200 million for expansion projects like I-69. In other words, to fund I-69, INDOT would have to pledge ALL of its "expansion" funds-- 21% to 25% of its entire construction budget--to I-69 every year for 14 years. There would be no funding for expansion projects such as added travel lanes, new road construction or major improvements anywhere else in the state for 14 years.

Borst's analysis concludes, "It is a mistake to assume that dollars spent on this project will have no impact on availability of dollars for other important priorities. Taxpayers, including those in Evansville, will lose state education and health care dollars if the state chooses to concentrate its resources and spend $1.7 billion for I-69 or any new highway project."

Any federal funding for I-69 would simply remove money that could be used for other road construction projects in Indiana. Clearly, we cannot afford such a diversion. According to a state funded "Needs Assessment for Local Roads and Streets" (Indiana LTAP Center, Purdue), 86% of the county roads in Indiana are rated in "critical" need of repair, 30% of our bridges and culverts are rated structurally or functionally "deficient," and 55% of our county bridges have some component with an estimated life of less than 5 years.

One rationale INDOT uses to promote a $1.7 billion I-69 extension is an increase in safety. According to LTAP, the greatest safety hazards on Indiana roads are a lack of centerline and edge stripes and inadequate road width. Lack of striping could be remedied for as little as $20 million per year statewide. According to federal standards, over half of all Indiana county roads are rated as safety hazards due to road width alone. This would cost $250 million to repair. Making these relatively inexpensive improvements would go further towards making our roads safer than pouring money into a NAFTA superhighway.

The LTAP study also found that much of the county highway system has deteriorated to the point where a normal maintenance program is not sufficient. At current funding levels the state cannot afford to carry out necessary maintenance on over 80% of state highways. The LTAP study states that Indiana requires an immediate increase in funding over current levels of $1 billion for highways and streets, and over $750 million for bridges and culverts, plus an increase in funding of $450 million per year just to maintain current roads and bridges.

And now, after it has become painfully obvious to INDOT that state legislators have no interest in funding I-69, Commissioner Brian Nicol is attempting another shift in the I-69 funding shell game. The recently introduced House Bill 1446, according to state Finance Director Mark Moore, would give INDOT the authority to sell Indiana's future federal highway allocations for an up front $800 million for immediate highway projects. By selling these bonds, the state would give up at least $60 million a year in future federal highway money to interest, attorneys, and other fees.

If this bill passes, in exchange for this short-term windfall, Indiana would lose as much as $1.2 billion in federal highway money over 18 years. INDOT and Governor Kernan refuse to specify exactly how this money would be used except to say that it would be for "high traffic corridors." If in fact this money is to be used for I-69, it will increase the cost to Indiana from the current $1.7 billion up to $2.9 billion. Surely, if INDOT and Kernan plan on mortgaging Indiana's future, it should be to upgrade the deteriorating highways, roads and bridges we currently have.

Just before Christmas, I, along with other elected local officials, was sent a letter from INDOT Commissioner Nicol describing his elation at the completion of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for I-69 through southern Indiana. One paragraph of this exercise in pure propaganda stated "INDOT took extraordinary steps to involve the public in each phase of the study... This input played a significant role in decision-making." In fact, of the unprecedented 22,000 comments received by INDOT on I-69, 21,000 (94%) were opposed to the highway, especially the proposed new-terrain route. What is "significant" is that public input was so soundly ignored.

Many opposed to the project expressed doubts about funding. Surely, funding issues should have been tackled first--long before $27 million in state and federal taxpayers' money was given to engineering firms. In anticipation of a lawsuit by taxpayers' opposed to the project, INDOT paid a Washington D.C. law firm $150,000 as a retainer. In these incredibly depressed economic times, given the critical need just to repair the roads and bridges we currently have, how can INDOT possibly justify the money they have squandered trying force I-69 down the collective throats of Hoosiers?

The highway boosters, engineering firms, road construction companies, and developers are powerful--they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in our state legislature and other elected officials in anticipation of billions of dollars in return. Past INDOT directors and employees have created a revolving door of crossover employment between the state agency and the engineering firms and road construction companies. It is time for a comprehensive review and reform of our transportation agency.

Recently, the Tennessee Department of Transportation was in the same position: out of control. As with INDOT, one of TDOT's biggest public relations problems over the years has been the perception that the department is run by road builders, and their interests outweigh those of local communities.

Tennessee Gov. Bredesen appointed a commissioner to do a thorough review of both the organizational structure of the department and all proposed projects. The result after a true cost benefit analysis was the cancellation of over one quarter of proposed projects, and, as opposed to INDOT, a real 25-year plan that included an expansion of TDOT to focus on a broad range of types of transportation, and a focus on community involvement. TDOT also was able to cut its budget and transfer over $60 million dollars to Tennessee's ailing general fund.

Governor Kernan has the opportunity to show true leadership and fiscal responsibility by following this example. Indiana already has the 4th highest interstate density in the country. It is clear that the benefits of simply concentrating our limited resources on fixing the roads we have will far outweigh any supposed benefits of an I-69, whether they be economic development, safety, cost savings of decreased travel time, or preservation of environmentally sensitive areas and community character--and not just in a limited highway corridor, but all across the state.

Mark Stoops is a Monroe County Councilman.