You should expect Indy’s roads to continue to fall apart because no one has a good plan that’s workable or legal

There are some things we know and some things I believe about infrastructure. Here are some things we know:

  1. We know how potholes form
  2. Maintenance is critical to preserving budgets and making roads last
  3. People really hate tolls and many Hoosiers will drive far out of their way to avoid them
  4. Heavy trucks and vehicles do the most damage to a road

We know people hate tolls because of the ridiculous Louisville Bridges project. I-65 across the Ohio at Louisville is tolled. The bridge 2 miles away is not. Traffic increased by 75% on the now-free bridge. The 65 bridge is a real money-loser that hasn’t lived up to expectations. It’s almost as if the engineers discovered that price signals work and that many Kentuckiana residents are averse to paying even $2-$4 to cross a bridge when an exit away is a free one.

Two of the mayoral candidates are pushing plans that basically do the same things:

  1. Spend more money to repair roads (which is obviously needed)
  2. Figure out ways to generate more money, primarily through people who work here but don’t live here
  3. Fix potholes faster (somehow)

The “spend more money” thing is easy, all things considered. Indy probably does not need to spend more money in this area. But we don’t have it.

We don’t have it because Indy, unlikely most major metros, does not have a regional metro tax mechanism. This would require state intervention and has about as much chance of happening in the next ten years as the Colts have of becoming a professional team of horse jockeys. The only way this happens is if something tragic happened, like the collapse of a City-Owned bridge.

Neither candidate can figure out a way around this legal hoop. Hogsett’s just promoting the idea, which will never succeed. Merritt thinks we should put tolls on major roads like Binford Blvd. I don’t dislike that idea on first blush, but it’s impractical and won’t work.

First, we know from the Louisville Bridges project that people will avoid tolls. Tolls work best on highways because by and large, they’re the only way to get from one point to another. Especially when placed uniformly so you can’t get from here to there without going through one. Plopping a toll booth on Binford isn’t going to work because too many other routes exist. Allisonville, Kessler, even shooting around down Keystone or Emerson. You’d have to have tolls everywhere in the City. No one thinks it’s a good idea to make people pay a toll to use a road just to go to the grocery store. Especially if you live in the City.

But I give him credit for saying the dirty four-letter “toll” word. Tolling is a uniquely conservative idea: people who use something should pay for it. And most of our roads and infrastructure are subsidized to the hilt by various layers of government that mask their true cost. If more drivers knew how much it cost on top of existing tax revenue dedicated to roads through user fees like gas taxes and registration fees, there’d be less driving. That can either be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.

Bill Hudnut solved some of this problem 30 years ago: you have to take care of what you have. We don’t do that very well in Indianapolis. We don’t treat sidewalk cracks for weeds. We don’t treat roads for weeds or cracks in any meaningful way. We just let people report issues and then respond to the “fires” all day long, all year long. Nor does the City, despite what it says about snow removal on sidewalks, have any authority to force property owners to tend to the sidewalks in front of them.

Merritt wants to use brine instead of salt in the winter. He says it’s better for the environment, cheaper, and won’t destroy the roads as much. Brine is typically used on highways because the high speed of cars makes salt dangerous to motorists. Brine is a mix of salt and magnesium chloride and it is cheaper for cities. But the humidity in winter causes brine to be far more destructive to your car.

Indy’s leaders seem to refuse to be realistic with residents about the state of infrastructure. Canvassing a couple of weeks ago I talked to some people at their homes and they were willing to recognize the following as we talked:

  • Indianapolis needs a moratorium on roads. No new roads — we have enough.
  • Private developers should start including the price of small cul-de-sacs and neighborhoods apart from the city’s larger grid system into the cost of HOA dues and housing costs.
  • If we’re going to toll, large trucks that do the most damage — far far more than a Honda and lightyears more than cyclists — should pay much of the tolls.
  • Bikeways and paths are billions cheaper to build and maintain. Too many people drive two blocks for lunch, often because there’s no good way to get there from here. Smart cities give people options.
  • A comprehensive maintenance plan, likely contracted out, should be put in place with revenue from increased parking costs.
  • An end to outright and shadow subsidies in the form of minimum parking requirements and paying for more parking garages out of city coffers.
  • Recognizing it took us a generation to get here and will likely take half of one to get out of it.

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Justin Harter for District 12