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Tabled plan included in budget bill

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Residents thought the proposal to build an outer beltway that would pass through Johnson County, south of Franklin, was dead.

But the proposal to create a toll road bypass billed as the Indiana Commerce Connector through southern Johnson County and other surrounding counties is back, at least as a possible future project.

The Indiana State Senate has approved a budget that sets aside $200 million every two years for future road projects, and the Indiana Commerce Connector is listed as a potential project.

State senators want to pay for more than $10 billion in roadwork during the next decade. The outer beltway hasn’t been prioritized and doesn’t have any particular funding set aside for it, according to State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus.

The proposed beltway would cost an estimated $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion and create a loop beyond Interstate 465 from the northeast side of the metro area to Indianapolis International Airport on the west side. No specific route was ever discussed for the beltway, but initial sketches showed it going somewhere between State Road 44 and State Road 252 in southern Johnson County.

Nothing has been decided about what route the beltway would take or whether the project would be financed with the help of private investors or just federal funding, said State Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood. No planning has been done since then-Gov. Mitch Daniels dropped the project in 2007, as the result of widespread and vocal public opposition.

Outraged residents packed public hearings throughout central Indiana, and some posted signs in their yards opposing the project.

But state senators this session included the Commerce Connector as a potential project that the state should set aside money for, Walker said. The state later could decide to use that money to pursue other projects, he said.

The Senate wants to start saving tax dollars from the general fund so the state can afford to pay for roadwork, Walker said. Federal excise taxes that used to go toward roads increasingly are being spent on trains, walking paths and other alternative modes of transportation, and the state is trying to ensure it has a way to pay for future transportation projects, he said.

“If we don’t start saving today, we’ll never build another road in Indiana again,” he said.

No decisions have been made about whether the savings would go toward the outer beltway or other projects, such as completing Interstate 69 between Evansville and Indianapolis, said State Sen. Rod Bray, R-Martinsville.

“It’s just one future possibility, and there’s been no real discussion about what needs to be done,” Bray said. “When you’re talking about $200 million toward a billion-dollar project, it’s a long way off, if it’s looked at at all.”

The House version of the budget doesn’t include money for the Commerce Connector, but the chambers are trying to work on a compromise.

State lawmakers, however, ultimately decide only how much funding to set aside for road projects, and not how the money is spent. The governor and the Indiana Department of Transportation would decide whether to pursue the outer beltway.

The Indiana Department of Transportation has not been planning to revive the outer beltway project, spokesman Will Wingfield said. The agency has been studying various alternatives for transportation needs throughout central Indiana but hasn’t done any additional work on the Indiana Commerce Connector since it was dropped six years ago.

Local lawmakers said the Commerce Connector would be worth considering, especially if private investors were to help build it. Such a road could relieve congestion along Interstate 465 and especially on Interstate 69 through Hamilton County, allow semitrailer-trucks to make deliveries faster and spur economic development, they said.

But they said they’d want to hear what residents thought and had questions, such as the exact route the road would take.

The first plan failed years ago because the project was announced and property owners never knew where it would go and how it would affect them, said State Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland.

The governor’s office bungled the original outer beltway proposal, but it might go better if the state first talked to property owners who might be interested in selling their land, Burton said. They could chart a route that wouldn’t be as controversial that way, he said.

“They just had a big announcement, and people thought the interstate was going through my yard,” Burton said. “You can’t go forcing that stuff on people. You have to have a coffee with the property owners, explain what you’d pay for the land and handle it in a wiser way.”

Residents who had been opposed to the original Indiana Commerce Connector said they’re upset that the idea is still being discussed after all the public outcry and are concerned with how farmland and rural lifestyles would be affected. State officials might try to wear down opposition over time by continually pushing the project, said former Johnson County Council member Charles Canary, who was a vocal opponent.

“It’s like with the people who opposed Interstate 69, where they just keep doing it until they wore them out,” he said. “You get tired of arguing against it. But they don’t have any money to fix roads up, and now they want to build something brand new.”

State lawmakers should first figure out how to pay for the completion of the new length of I-69 between Evansville and Indianapolis, before looking at another major project, Canary said.

“That’s a fiasco, that they don’t have enough money to deal with it,” he said. “We’re just jumping from one fiasco to another.”

State lawmakers should reserve judgment on the Commerce Connector, because leasing of the Indiana Toll Road proved to be successful and provided the state $2.8 billion in road funding, Waltz said. The state was able to pursue road work at a time when other states couldn’t afford it.

A $1.5 billion price tag would be considerable, said State Rep. David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis.

Frizzell said the project might be worthy of consideration, if only to reduce congestion and truck traffic on I-465. But he said he’d be opposed to more federal spending.

“They’re $17 trillion in debt, so I don’t know where they’re going to get the money,” he said. “That’s the question.”

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