Funding Uncertainty Plagues Highways, But They Still Get Built

It’s funny how there always seems to be enough money for highways, but never enough for transit.

The portion of I-69 from Evansville to Indianapolis is well underway, even though no one knows where the funds to complete it will come from. The same can't be said for Indianapolis's transit plan. Photo: Urban Indy

Around the country, from Houston to Portland to New York, there are head-spinningly enormous highway construction projects about to get built, even though no one really knows how to pay for them. These projects don’t move forward because they’re financially sound, but because of political calculations and leaps of faith that someone will cover the costs in the end, perhaps in some form of taxpayer bailout.

One of these unfunded highway projects is underway right now in Southwest Indiana, writes Curt Ailes at Network blog Urban Indy. Construction has begun on portions of I-69 between Evansville and Indianapolis. So far, 67 miles have been completed, and as for the rest, well, political leaders are betting that everything will fall into place in the coming years.

Ailes points out the double standard at work in the opposition toward the Indy Connect plan, which would dramatically expand transit service in Indianapolis:

One fact remains and it is that our state has not figured out how to pay for the completion of the freeway.

So, given the progressing I-69, when I hear resistance regarding the plan to pay for the development of a regional mass transit system in Central Indiana, it strikes me as odd, if not hypocritical. Some will argue that raising taxes to pay for this mass transit system is a non-starter; even given that the plan formulated would generate a 7% ROI based on conservative fiscal estimates. In the Indy Connect transit plan, we have a clearly presented need for the system, a robust business case to pay for and benefit from its construction and operation, a firm design, as well as clear benefits that will be generated by a meager tax increase to fund the transit improvements. Indianapolis, indeed the state as a whole, stands poised to gain considerably from the transit plan in the form of access to jobs and equitable multi-modal transportation options which are currently below par for a city of its size.

Meanwhile, a road that we have no money to finish is underway in the hinterlands of Indiana, being pushed by state officials banking on the economic benefits of the roadway. Dissecting this further, I-69 is a greenfield freeway designed to spur non-existent economic development in sparsely populated regions of the state.

Elsewhere on the Network today: This Big City says it’s about time that demand for sustainable lifestyles began to permeate all our public design decisions. PubliCola reports that the Seattle Times continues its hyperbolic rants about the “war on cars.” And NRDC’s Kaid Benfield explains why he supports Washington, DC’s hotly debated height restrictions.