The Journal Gazette
Friday, August 19, 2016 10:03 am

Secrecy for panel on road funding

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – A special committee tasked with recommending stable, long-term road funding options to the legislature will likely craft its plan behind closed doors in executive session – a departure from precedent.

Some of the options involve raising gas taxes, tolling existing or new roadways and moving to a per-mile usage fee – things the committee might not be comfortable discussing in public right before an election.

Some members of the committee are lawmakers while others are experts in the field or local officials.

"I want to put these people on this commission in a position to be able to say anything they want to say," said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville – co-chair of the Funding Indiana’s Roads for a Stronger, Safer Tomorrow Task Force.

"We might need to have an overall meeting with everybody to allow that to kind of take place, to kind of have an airing out. And then we need to come back into a public meeting to kind of put together and lay out a plan in view of the public so they can see where it is."

Kenley said citizens would also be allowed to testify and react to any proposal.

The procedure hasn’t been finalized, but co-chair Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, is also leaning in that direction. The law was written to allow an executive session even though other summer study committees and task forces do not use them.

Kenley acknowledged it is an unusual procedure but said any proposal would still be vetted by the General Assembly in 2017.

The commission in its first two meetings has been deluged with data as its members try to grapple with the full state and local need for roads and bridges. Some calculations say $2 billion in new revenue a year is needed.

Earlier this year the legislature tackled the problem in the short term, but the overall problem remains that gas taxes aren’t bringing in enough money to keep up with the need.

This is aggravated by the fact that more fuel-efficient cars mean people are purchasing less fuel.

Kevin Pula, policy specialist on transportation from the National Conference for State Legislatures, told the group Thursday that states provide 40 percent of all transportation funding while locals pay for 35 percent. The federal portion is only 25 percent.

Indiana’s state gas tax is 18 cents and hasn’t been raised since 2003. Fifteen states haven’t raised their gas tax in 20 years. There also is a federal gas tax and Hoosiers pay a sales tax on gasoline as well.

All of the gas tax money goes to roads but only a small portion of the sales tax revenue does.

Pula said many states are doing budget transfers, bonding, increased tolling and electric vehicle fees. Indiana has increased its road funding by spending more from general fund tax collections.

Another hot topic is moving toward a usage fee system where drivers pay per mile – or by how much they use the roads.

Pula said it is generally illegal for states to add tolls to existing highways but there is a waiver given to three states that hasn’t been used. States can now apply for one of those slots to pilot tolling on existing roads – such as Interstate 69 coming into Fort Wayne.

The next meeting of the group is Sept. 29.

A report must be finalized by Dec. 1.

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