The Journal Gazette
Thursday, December 03, 2015 1:16 am

Infrastructure projects outlined

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

John Sampson traces northeast Indiana’s cooperative attitude to a 2009 conversation.

David Long, a state senator representing parts of Allen and Whitley counties, said then that the region’s delegation to the General Assembly wanted to allocate state money to pay for local officials’ priorities – but legislators didn’t know what those priorities were.

"It hurts us as a community when we’re not prepared and this money goes somewhere else," said Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. "Never again."

Sampson joined business and government officials from a 13-county region Tuesday as the Conexus Indiana Northeast Regional Logistics Council unveiled its priorities for investment in road, air, rail and water infrastructure for the next 30 years.

Among the highway project priorities are limiting access to U.S. 30, widening U.S. 33 to four lanes and expanding U.S. 6 to four lanes from west of Kendallville to the Ohio border. In each case, according to the report, the goal is to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow.

U.S. 33, for example, is a winding, two-lane road connecting Fort Wayne and Elkhart. Recreational vehicles assembled in Elkhart have to travel U.S. 33 to reach Interstate 69 on their way to being shipped out to RV dealers nationwide. Various manufacturers located in Ligonier also ship products on trucks using U.S. 33.

Conexus Indiana, the state’s advanced manufacturing and logistics initiative, works to capitalize on advanced manufacturing and logistics opportunities.

The region’s council comprises 36 logistics, manufacturing, warehousing and economic development officials working in northeast Indiana. For more than two years, the group has studied existing infrastructure and debated what investments would bring the most return.

David Holt, vice president of operations and business development for Conexus Indiana, said officials don’t expect to get every wish granted. In fact, he said, having some projects funded would eliminate the need for others.

An estimate for the entire projects list comes to about $4 billion, based on meeting state construction standards for the work, Holt said.

But some of the projects could be completed for less money by meeting less rigorous county standards, he added.

Another piece of the study was figuring out what logistics-related job openings cannot be filled because there aren’t enough skilled workers. The next step was to identify what skills are needed and encourage educators to provide classes that offer the specialized training.

Having those conversations with universities, colleges and Ivy Tech Community College is next on the council’s to-do list, Holt said.

Among the needs are more air cargo pilots, truck drivers and boat captains. Employers also have openings for warehouse/logistics maintenance technicians, logistics supervisors with four-year degrees and workers certified to operate heavy equipment.

Council members have also considered public policy and public awareness of various logistics issues. The group has identified an opportunity to educate the public on the logistics industry’s economic impact on the area and the positives of global trade.

The council’s report, "Accelerating Manufacturing Excellence through World-Class Logistics," outlines various opportunities for strengthening the region’s logistics industry and will guide future funding conversations between northeast Indiana officials and state legislators, Sampson said.

"We cannot be caught flatfooted," he said, "not knowing what our priorities are."

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