by Jeff Swiatek - The Indianapolis Star | July 10, 2014

Driverless Cars and Intelligent Highways Projected for Indiana

Driverless vehicles. A second beltway that partially loops Indianapolis. "iWays" that recharge electric cars and melt snow and ice. Those are just a few of the billions of dollars in recommendations unloaded on Gov. Mike Pence Wednesday.

July 10--Driverless vehicles. A second beltway that partially loops Indianapolis. "iWays" that recharge electric cars and melt snow and ice.

Those are just a few of the billions of dollars in recommendations unloaded on Gov. Mike Pence Wednesday by a panel he appointed to prioritize the state's transportation needs and suggest a roadmap for furthering Indiana's reputation as a crossroads state.

The governor, in a half-hour Statehouse presentation, said the 73-page report "exceeded my expectations" and will be shared with state agencies for them to study and possibly incorporate into official state transportation planning.

Finding money to pay for it all won't be easy and will require legislative action.

The panel, headed by Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann and Cathy Langham, the CEO of Langham Logistics, didn't stint on advice. Recommendations cover the waterfront, quite literally, with suggestions for enhancing Indiana's ports and locks, while delving deeply into highway and bridge needs and improvements for rail, air and truck traffic.

As for needed road projects, the panel said four should be get top priority for state funding: added lanes on I-65 and I-70, a bridge to carry I-69 over the Ohio River near Evansville, and the new partial beltway around Indianapolis.

The idea of a second beltway to supplement I-465 has never gained much political and public support in Indianapolis and would cost a staggering $2 billion. "However, the panel believes that (the new loop) is a high-priority, critical project because of its ability to facilitate the movement of freight and passenger traffic into and around Indianapolis," the report says.

The report devotes four pages to innovations it says could revolutionize transportation much like the first gas-powered car did in the late 1880s. It recommends changes in the law to allow driverless cars once the technology is refined. Some states already permit the vehicles on an experimental basis.

And it suggests installing lanes that charge electric cars while they're moving, and roadbeds heated by solar-powered conducting particles to melt snow on a trial basis, starting with a one-mile stretch somewhere on I-65.

The smart road would also communicate weather data and information about road conditions and safety hazards to drivers, perhaps by projecting messages on their windshields.

Other recommendations from the 23-member panel:

--Allow an increase in the length of truck trailers from 53 to 57 feet while mandating that trailers have three axles instead of two to distribute their weight more evenly and reduce damage to highways.

--Designate high-occupancy-only lanes on highways to encourage car-pooling.

--Improve locks on the Ohio River and dredge the Port of Indiana on Lake Michigan.

Road projects identified by the panel as having secondary priority for funding included adding lanes to I-69 and building two limited-access highways. One would run from Fort Wayne to Valparaiso and cost $1 billion and the other would extend from I-69 near Petersburg to the Ohio River near Rockport at a cost of $444 million.

The panel was lukewarm to spending money on improving rail passenger lines running to Chicago from Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, saying, "passenger rail projects must increase their value through enhanced performance before the state justifies providing assistance."

The panel was told by Pence not to bother weighing in on several big ongoing transportation projects, including the yet-to-be-finished I-69 extension from Indianapolis to Bloomington and improvements to U.S. 31 from Indianapolis to South Bend.

Who's going to pay for all this? The report noted that gasoline consumption in Indiana has fallen almost steadily since 2005, from 3.2 billion gallons to 2.95 billion, as people drive less and use more efficient vehicles. That's projected to lead to a long-term drop in the state's highway funding, which comes mainly from gas taxes.

To find new funding for transportation projects, the panel recommended slapping a new tax on pleasure boats, a special mileage tax on cars and other passenger vehicles, and a user fee on alternative fuel vehicles, among other new funding options.

Answers to those questions will have to be resolved somwhere down the road.

Call Star reporter Jeff Swiatek at (317) 444-6483. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSwiatek.

Top road projects

A 23-member panel appointed by Gov. Mike Pence to study the state's transportation needs suggested four top-priority road projects:

--Widening existing four-lane rural segments of I-70 throughout Indiana to a minimum of six lanes. Cost: $854 million.

--Widening existing four-lane rural segments of I-65 throughout Indiana to a minimum of six lanes. Cost: $1.54 billion.

--Building a four-lane "commerce connector" beltway loop around Indianapolis, running clockwise from I-69 near Fishers to I-65 near Whitestown. Cost: $1.84 billion.

--A bridge carrying I-69 over the Ohio River near Evansville. Cost: $1.4 billion (to be shared with Kentucky).

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