Saturday, May 12th, 2007

INDOT’s Strange Priorities

I saw this interesting article where INDOT chief Karl Browning says that Kentucky has no money to replace the Ohio River bridge at Madison. This is a $500 million project which Kentucky is slated to pay most of. Indiana’s funding is in place. Kentucky is trying to build four bridges, and doesn’t have money for any of them.

I’ve long found the matter of bridge crossings and the connections to them of great interest – and evidence of some incorrectly set priorities at INDOT. In all too many ways, INDOT has been acting as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Start with the question of who pays for the bridges. Kentucky owns the Ohio River, and has been very zealous in defending that ownership. For example, unhappy officials in Louisville, Kentucky threatened to impound the Ceasar’s casino boat in Bridgeport, Indiana if it crossed the state line, which is only about 50 feet from the shore. So the responsibility for paying for bridge crossings is with Kentucky. Yet Indiana has established a precedent of splitting costs 50/50. And as far as I’ve seen they’ve never used bridge funding as a lever to, for example, negotiate over Ohio River ownership and jurisdiction, or much of anything else. Indiana has gotten no credit for this.

Now from a purely pragmatic standpoint you could argue that bridges benefit both sides of the river and so the costs should be split. Perhaps. But the value of the bridges, and the priority set in replacing them, is not evenly split. Consider, the first major bridge replacement done in recent times was to put a new span in Owensboro, Kentucky. The Indiana side of that crossing is a very sparsely populated rural area. Yet INDOT not only helped pay for the bridge, it is also dedicating $140 million in Major Moves money to build a four-lane connector from that bridge to I-64. This project has marginal benefits to Hoosiers and is almost exclusively for the benefit of a Kentucky city. Yet it is one of INDOT’s top priorities, getting funding while other much more critical projects languish. (If you really want to build I-69, for example, then here’s a good place to look for more money). Spencer County, where this road and bridge are, only has 20, 596 people in it. The cost of this connector adds up to $6,800 for every man, woman, and child in the county. If you gave the citizens of Spencer County a choice: this new road or a check for $6,800 each, I know which side I’d wager my money winning. I’m sure there is some theoretical justification for this route, but you could come up with something similar for any Indiana county. It’s really a question of priorities. INDOT here seems more interested in spending money on Kentuckians than Hoosiers. I rate this Spencer County project as the single worst in the entire state.

Moving upriver to Louisville, there is a huge program to build not one, but two new bridge crossings. The Indiana and Kentucky sides could not agree on where to build a bridge, so in the grand tradition of political negotiation, they decided to compromise and build both, an east end bridge linking I-265 segments across the river, and a new downtown span paralleling the Kennedy. Indiana agreed again to pay 50% of the cost of the bridges, even though the lion’s share of the people and the lion’s share of the benefits are to the Kentucky side of the river. The $700 million INDOT set aside out of Major Moves funds for this makes it the most expensive project in the state other than I-69. Just the ten year program portion of this is $5,400 per person in Clark County. Interestingly, INDOT just spent $250 million on a major widening program on I-65 there and just before that spent tens of millions more building an extension of I-265. Clark County never tires of complaining about how Southern Indiana is getting neglected by the state when in fact it is INDOT’s favorite place to spend money. This one modest sized county with low population growth is getting more money than Hamilton County – 2.5 times as big and with rocketship-fast growth – which has gotten virtually zero from the state in the last decade or so while INDOT was pouring funds into Clark County.

What’s more, the money INDOT set aside isn’t even enough. The latest estimates from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet put INDOT’s share alone at $1.2 billion – as much as INDOT is spending in Marion County under Major Moves, and vastly more than in Indiana’s other urban centers like Lake County, Allen County, etc. I’m sure all the people in Louisville send their thanks to INDOT. The investment in the Louisville region by Indiana is vastly out of proportion to the number of Hoosiers that live there. (That includes, incidentally, 90% of my family, so don’t think I have some particular hatred of the area).

Now come to the Madison bridge. Here’s an example where we see the opposite situation. There are a lot of Hoosiers and not as many Kentuckians. But this bridge, for some reason, INDOT isn’t willing to pay 50% on, should the article above be believed. It is also way down the INDOT priority list after the Owensboro connector and Louisville bridges. Of course it is also down Kentucky’s list too, since the KYTC actually focuses its money where Kentuckians live. Don’t expect to see a new bridge in Madison any time soon – at least not until all the bridges that benefit primarily Kentucky are built first.

And of course there’s the matter of Evansville, the largest Indiana city on the Ohio River. I-69, should it be built, will require another bridge crossing. But I’m not even sure if this is even in the pipeline. The article above mentions four bridges Kentucky is working on. I know there’s a Brent Spence bridge replacement in Cincinnati, two bridges in Louisville, and one in Madison. That leaves Evansville as the odd man out. While Owensboro residents will soon drive across their shiny new bridge and up a modern four lane highway to I-64 courtesy of Hoosier taxpayers, Evansvillians can only dream of a day when there will be another bridge crossing.

The rule of thumb for INDOT seems to be: where ever there the ratio of greatest Kentucky benefit to lowest Indiana benefit, that’s where the money should go. So it’s Ownesboro first, then Louisville, then Madison, and maybe some day Evansville. This is complete backwards thinking. How Kentucky conned Indiana into this behavior is beyond me.

4 Comments
Topics: Transportation
Cities: Louisville

4 Responses to “INDOT’s Strange Priorities”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow! Pretty scathing and dead-on critque of Kentucky free-riding on INDOT.

    However, I would disagree with you that no proportional development has been thrown towards Hamilton County’s way.

    Although Super 70 will alleviate problems with through-traffic it will also help those who still commute from the arrogant and affluent northeast indy to the central core by the city’s main expressway path (465 to I-70 to I-65)

    (If only I-69 had been build into the city roughly along Binford long ago, this upgrade would not seem as pressing.)

    There’s also the widening and improvement of us 31.

  2. Crocodileguy says:

    “Arrogant and affluent” eh? Sounds to me like a little envious reverse-class snobbery…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Arenn, you should send this post as a letter to the editor to the Star and other Indiana papers. INDOT needs to be called out.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Thank you for the note. I used to give feedback on various projects to INDOT, but never got anywhere. It was just too quixotic a task, so I stopped.

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