An economic analysis of I-69's affordability by State Sen. Lawrence Borst promises to play a significant role in new-terrain opponents' efforts to raise the multi-billion-dollar boondoggle as an issue in this year's gubernatorial election.
The Republican chairman of the powerful State Senate Finance Committee said in a published statement last October that Indiana's next governor will have only two options to fund I-69 construction: delay $3 billion worth of major highway expansion projects around Indiana for the next 14 years, or raise the state gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon and put all the new money into I-69.
Borst reached those conclusions in an Oct. 30, 2003, letter to the Southside Times editor in Indianapolis and distributed copies to citizens at a meeting in the capital city. He is a widely recognized expert on state government financing.
Issued months before Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitch Daniels suggested an I-69 toll road, Borst's statement said, unequivocally, that a toll road is simply not an option.
"Several studies have demonstrated the project is not toll feasible," he wrote. "One study concluded tolls would probably not cover the additional construction cost that would be required to build I-69 as a toll road. (Toll roads are more expensive to build and operate than free roads.) Even if tolls were financially feasible, there would be a public relations problem convincing southwestern Indiana residents they were going to have to pay tolls for a road they had been led to believe can be built with federal funds."
Borst's analysis also laid waste to perhaps the biggest fraud that Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan's INDOT has perpetrated upon Hoosier taxpayers these past 14 years.
"INDOT has said 80% of the I-69 cost will come from federal funds," Borst wrote. "... However, there is no federal categorical funding for such projects. Even if a new federal category were created at some future date (which now appears unlikely) that provided funding for I-69, Indiana would have to compete with states like Texas for the funds."
About the only prospects for additional federal funding for I-69 would come from earmarks or special designations in the federal budget, Borst concluded. "However, earmarks are typically limited to $10 to $20 million or less per year. It is unlikely federal funds in excess of Indiana's regular apportionment will be available to build I-69."
Given the likelihood that Hoosiers across Indiana will have to fund I-69 with their own tax dollars, Borst explained the impacts the highway will have on their roads and pocketbooks. Although he said INDOT's $1.7 billion cost estimate "is probably understated," at that cost taxpayers would ante up at least $160 million in each of the next 14 years to fund I-69 construction, most likely more, a lot more.
"This year INDOT will spend about $700 million in combined state and federal funds for road and bridge construction," Borst wrote in his Southside Times letter. "INDOT estimates it needs more than $500 million per year for routine rehabilitation just to preserve the existing highway system."
That leaves but two options for I-69 construction funding: put off new construction and upgrades of roads and bridges elsewhere in the state, or raise state gasoline taxes.
"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 to complete the project," Borst wrote. "Even if INDOT had no additional big expansion projects under development, it is unlikely that much money could be dedicated to a single project for such a prolonged period. There would have to be no expansion projects (added travel lanes, new road construction, major improvements etc.) funded anywhere else in the state for fourteen years."
But even that option is not feasible, as Borst noted that INDOT has more than $3 billion in "big expansion projects" under development over the next 10 to 15 years, scattered in every area of the state.
That leaves raising state gas taxes as the only way to fund I-69. "If the project were built on a pay-as-you-go basis with state funds, it would require the equivalent of a 5¢ gas tax increase dedicated entirely to I-69 to complete the project in 14 years," Borst wrote. "There are no other state funds available for this project."
While Borst's comments buoyed highway opponents at the time, he has sent mixed signals on I-69 ever since. He backtracked somewhat last November when he announced support for a new-terrain route proposed by Republican Daniels that would bypass Borst's Indianapolis Senate district.
But he told Evansville Courier & Press reporter Jennifer Whitson in December that he had urged Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan to focus state resources on upgrading U.S. 31 from Carmel to South Bend rather than I-69.
The latter statement led the paper's editorial board to fret: "Recent comments by the powerful chairman of the Indiana Senate Finance Committee should demonstrate to supporters of a direct Interstate 69 that highway construction is far from decided." The editors called Borst "no fan of I-69" and suggested his support for the project, or at least a neutral stance, is critical to its future.
"Make what you will of Borst's comments," the editors said, "he will be a hard sell, and he is a key player."
Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative and is helping highway opponents develop a 2004 communications strategy.