By ERIC BRADNER
Evansville Courier & Press
As the governor who set a 142-mile extension of Interstate 69 into motion prepares to leave office, his replacement says he is committed to finishing the work.
Gov.-elect Mike Pence said his administration will prioritize completing the project that Gov. Mitch Daniels — his fellow Republican — pushed about half the distance from Evansville to Indianapolis.
“Since I believe roads mean jobs, I think one of the historic contributions of the Daniels administration has been to make such measurable progress in completing I-69,” Pence said in mid-December. “We’re going to finish that work. We’re going to find out where to do it, we’re going to find out how to do it, but we’re going to do it.”
He said during this year’s campaign that he intends to launch a blue-ribbon panel to study Indiana’s infrastructure and funding needs, and that the options he pursue will evolve out of that panel’s recommendations.
Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault said the still-forming administration has not yet put together the panel in part because it is focused on filling Cabinet-level positions. Pence will take office Jan. 14.
Among his top priorities, Pence said, is finishing the I-69 extension, completing efforts to build new bridges over the Ohio River near Louisville and finishing improvements to U.S. 31 north of Indianapolis.
Both the I-69 and U.S. 31 projects were funded largely through the $3.85 billion that Indiana gained through the 2006 “Major Moves” deal — the 75-year lease of a Northern Indiana toll road, in exchange for upfront cash to pump into pressing infrastructure needs.
That money, though, is now either spent or set aside for specific projects, and Indiana is set to join other states that have struggled to find cash to pump into transportation as revenue from gasoline taxes decline.
Daniels pointed to public-private partnerships as one option. He pointed to one of the Ohio River bridges, which is being built with private money that will be repaid through tolls.
“If people will be simply a little bit open-minded to new approaches like this — which I’ve been pointing out for six years, are completely customary in the rest of the world; only in America do we think the only way to build a road is the gas tax — it may not be a complete answer, but that’s got to be part of the answer,” Daniels said.
Pence, too, identified public-private partnerships as one of the “various options” that his team will examine.
That might not just mean roads and bridges built by private companies and funded through tolls.
The Indiana Department of Transportation recently posted a “request for information” from contractors seeking ways that companies might play a greater role in completing I-69 even without tolls.
The project is divided into six sections. The first three spanned from Evansville to Crane, and that 67-mile portion is completed and opened to traffic in November. The fourth segment extends from Crane to Bloomington, and is set to open by the end of 2014.
The fifth, from Bloomington to Martinsville, is being planned, and the sixth, from Martinsville to Indianapolis, is not yet in the works.
Typically, INDOT plays a central role in managing each section. Its staff leads the way in producing environmental impact statements, designing route options and choosing the one to build, and hiring contractors for the construction. It also maintains the highway after it’s built.
However, the request for information that INDOT posted in recent weeks asks contractors to submit ideas that lay out how they could handle section five — from design through construction and maintenance.
The goal, INDOT said, would be cutting costs by farming the project out in a single contract, rather than dividing it up into several.
“What we’re trying to do is, as quickly as we can for the people in and around Bloomington, get section five completed,” said INDOT Commissioner Michael B. Cline, who took the job under Daniels and will continue in it under Pence.
He said it’s important to press forward with the Bloomington-to-Martinsville section as quickly as possible because a delay would force congestion that Bloomington’s roadways are not prepared to handle.
“We feel that we do a good job at INDOT, but we also know that there are very, very creative people in the private sector, and so we’re soliciting that input. It may be in one sense unique, but we think it’s a very good idea,” Cline said.
“We always want to get the best value, and so we’ve been successful to this point in getting a good price on I-69 and getting construction done quickly, and we want to continue on in that.”
He said contracting the entire section out is an option the state is considering, but if answers to the request for information indicate that “it turns out to be not such a hot idea, we won’t move ahead with it. But our instincts are that we’ll get good results.”
The state’s two most powerful lawmakers said after an Indiana Chamber of Commerce luncheon in November that they are not sure what sort of timeline will exist to complete the 142-mile project or how it will be funded.
“I don’t think anybody knows right now what will happen with that portion,” said state Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.
“There’s no glaring solution at this point,” said the leader of Indiana’s other legislative chamber, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.
Each said they view funding the remainder of the highway project — a portion that would mostly run along the existing route of Ind. 37, from the west side of Bloomington to the southwestern side of Indianapolis — as part of the state’s larger highway funding problem.
It’s one they could try to tackle in the upcoming four-month, budget-writing legislative session, or in the years ahead.