For politicians in public office, it’s all about current popularity and the next election. That’s why it’s so hard for them to support long-range initiatives. The costs to taxpayers tend to be immediate, the benefits off in the future. What’s in that fact for a politician to like?
But John Ketzenberger, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, identifies a long-range effort so vital to our prosperity that it must demand the governor and state legislators embrace it. “Indiana must maintain a comprehensive plan to build and maintain its transportation structure and create a long-term method to pay for it,” he writes in a column for the Indianapolis Star. “If they do the legislation right, lawmakers will create a system that boosts the state’s economy and sustains the transportation system for years to come.”
The need for paying attention to transportation is obvious. Indiana is fifth in the nation for the amount of freight that travels through. Because of our location and heavy reliance on manufacturing (27 percent of the state’s economy), moving goods “by road, train and plane is critical to our economy,” Ketzenberger writes. “Indiana is within a day’s travel to 75 percent of the U.S. and Canadian populations and has direct access to more interstate highways than any other state.”
The main obstacle for a long-term plan is also obvious: how to pay for it. All $3.8 billion from the Major Moves toll road lease is spent or has been earmarked. Raising new taxes in this shaky economy would be inadvisable and unwelcome to a vast majority of Hoosiers – Gov.-elect Mike Pence is even talking about cutting the income tax. The General Assembly has made deep cuts to education, and there will be enormous pressure to put some of it back. Obamacare is going to add to our health care spending , and by a lot. If Washington sends us over the “fiscal cliff,” a recession is likely before midyear, which will further depress the economy and slow state government’s revenue stream.
But the need is great enough to make overcoming the obstacle worth tackling. One idea being considered is to stop diverting about $150 million a year in gas tax revenues to the operations of the Indiana State Police and Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Another is to divert some of the sales tax revenue from gasoline sales away from the general fund into transportation projects. Still another is to put a surcharge on the sale of license plates. The best ideas – the plate fee, gasoline sales tax – involve something close to a “user fee,” making those who use the roads most pay the most for their upkeep.