The 10-county coalition

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership has commissioned an infrastructure task force to determine which projects deliver the best benefit to their communities.

Almost everyone agrees that America's crumbling transportation infrastructure needs an overhaul, but it's rare to find unity when it comes to the questions of who should pay for it and where to begin. 

The decision about which projects would proceed often generates controversy. Even more often, the people likely to be most affected by infrastructure projects feel left out of the decision-making process. To combat these issues, 10 counties in Northeast Indiana have formed a coalition to strengthen their lobbying efforts at the state level. They are now using their collective voice and influence to let Indiana know where their infrastructure priorities lie.

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership (NEIRP), a public-private partnership (PPP; P3) formed in 2006, includes Adams, Allen, Dekalb, Huntington, Lagrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties. Together, community, business, and political leaders in these counties are trying to drum up attention to local needs at the state level. So far they have been successful in several endeavors: their recent effort to establish two new flights at a regional airport saw the addition of flights to Charlotte, North Carolina, and another to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

In recent months, one of the key initiatives within the NEIRP has been the commissioning of an infrastructure task force to evaluate the value-add potential of the many proposed infrastructure projects in the region. After months of study and community input from the area's 10 Local Economic Development Organizations (LEDOs), the council selected 13 projects that they believe provide maximum economic benefit to the region, dividing those projects into three tiers.

“Each project has close connectivity to Northeast Indiana's transportation corridors and has strong proximity to existing business and industry as well as sites planned for future development,” said Andy Brooks, president of Brooks Construction and chair of the Vision 2020 Infrastructure Taskforce commissioned by the NEIRP, which developed the qualified metrics used to segment the project list. “We know that the projects will take time to develop and implement, but the assessment will help us prioritise which projects to concentrate on once funding becomes available.”

The first tier of priority projects is focused on major critical schemes, tier two comprises “low-hanging fruit,” or easily accessible projects, and tier three includes three initiatives that require additional development before they are ready for the procurement stage.

Of the priority projects, three were included in the tier one category, including the modernisation of US Highways 30, 33 and 6, in that order. They were selected for their location and regional economic impact, according to the infrastructure task force report, although it was noted that these large projects would likely take time to develop and implement. US Highway 6, in particular, is one of the few roads in Indiana designed as a heavy highway, meaning that it is rated for vehicles up to 134,000 pounds, significantly more than the standard load bearing capacity of 80,000 pounds of most highways in the national system. The plan for improvements to Highway 6 would include the widening of the shoulders on the western end of the project area, where Amish commuters are dangerously forced to mingle with commercial truck traffic.

Final recommendations of the task force to the NEIRP, which were published in February, include continued awareness generation toward the development of a full-access controlled freeway along US 30, advocating for a study of the northeast-southwest corridor projects comprised of State Route 5 and US Highways 27 and 33, and advocacy for funding the construction of a project that can be readily developed with significant business and industry impact on the region. One example of the latter is the estimated $32.5 million proposed upgrade of State Road 8 to allow for 134,000-pound loads, which would connect commercial corridors in Michigan with US Highway 6. Currently, State Road 8 is rated for 90,000-pound loads.

For all of these projects, a NEIRP representative said that the partnership supports the use of P3 arrangements, which it reckons present an opportunity to benefit from the private sector's ability to complete projects on shorter timelines.

“I think [P3s] are becoming the model of the future,” the representative said. “Working together we can move things a lot further, a lot faster.”