The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, December 02, 2015 11:43 am

Road to change

In today’s economic world, no town, no city and no county is an island. There is now a general realization in northeast Indiana that we will succeed as a region or fail as one.

That wasn’t always the case. Road and highway funding, for instance, is crucial to regional economic development. But major road and highway projects don’t stop at city or county lines, so they become realities only when state or federal funding is available. With the possible exception of Indianapolis, one city, or even one county, can’t make the case for such projects.

"In the past, we have missed out on some funding," said Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Courtney Tritch, "because we didn’t speak with one voice."

Monday, with a consensus of support from regional mayors, commissioners and economic development departments, the partnership released its first-ever wish list of the projects designed to foster economic development by connecting northeast Indiana with other markets.

The 13 proposed projects include improvements that would make it easier for trucks to access I-69 and I-80/90 in order to enhance commerce within the area and better connect companies here with Indianapolis, southeast Indiana, Chicago, South Bend and Elkhart, and Ohio and Michigan.

The projects were placed into three categories of regional need. Three large projects were in the first tier:

• Making U.S. 30 a full access-controlled freeway from Fort Wayne to Chicago.

• Using U.S. 33 and other roads to form a northwest-southeast corridor through the region.

• Improvements to U.S. 6, a major artery for trucks carrying steel from northwest Indiana.

Tritch, the partnership’s vice president of marketing, said the projects were prioritized after input from the region’s 10 local economic development organizations.

"Each county had to fill out economic development profiles for a scoring system that we had devised," Tritch said. The system ranked projects by economic impact, amount of commercial truck traffic, feasibility research completed and evidence of local support. "We were looking for projects that connect us better to the interstates," Tritch said.

The Mayors’ and Commissioners’ Caucus and the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana endorsed the list, and the partnership plans to reach out to other areas affected by the projects.

The Northeast Indiana Regional Coordinating Council – which represents four counties within the partnership’s 10-county area, is behind the interstate-projects list as well. The coordinating council has a separate list – the 2035 Transportation Plan – to improve and maintain roads, bridges, rail lines and other transportation infrastructure within the Allen County urban area, said Dan Avery, the council’s executive director. That list is designed to solve safety, congestion and environmental issues as well as foster economic development.

The lists are used for lobbying the Statehouse and to qualify for federal funds. But both federal and state funding are threatened by reductions in gas-tax revenue. And neither the legislature in Indianapolis nor Congress wants to tackle increasing the gas tax.

"I think it’s on a lot of people’s minds, but no one commits to finding a solution," Avery said.

"If we don’t stand up – the citizens of Indiana – and express that we want better roads, better bridges, the legislature won’t take that action," he said. And, Avery added, "there’s a cost to not doing it."

It’s encouraging that the region has its priorities sorted for roads and highways. But lists are just lists without the money to get the projects accomplished.

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