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Reconstruction of SR37….Tick, Tock, Tick Tock

By Rick McKinney: Senior Policy Analyst 2/5/21

You may think I mis-spelled the words above, but I’m not referring to the current app that is so popular today for its many dance videos. But many local elected officials are performing their own SR37 dance: dancing against time- and dancing while you are in the dark. At least until the next election.

For those unaware, the concept to reconstruct SR37 and make it similar to the Keystone Parkway in Carmel or US31 , also in Carmel, was borne out of both the fear Governor Pence would lose his 2016 bid for re-election to John Gregg and the desire for extended funding for road engineering and construction companies. So there was a series of very hush hush meetings between Fishers Mayor Fadness, County Commissioner Heirbrandt , Gov. Pence and his staff at INDOT, resulting in the December 2015 announcement that the State of Indiana would bequeath $100 million towards the reconstruction of SR37 AND that it would occur under local control ! Much fanfare followed with emphasis placed on the $12 million contribution by both Fishers and Hamilton County each, and designating Noblesville as a “partner", even though Noblesville will not contribute a single dime until the project moves north of 146th St.

There was a grand total of one public meeting for the Hamilton County Council and Commissioners to jointly discuss the project just prior to the May 2016 Republican Primary. The vote was unanimous to accept the $100 million from the State, despite unanswered questions as about why Fishers was designated the “lead” agency when they had never before managed a project of this scope or magnitude. The initial price tag for the project was $124 million.

From 2016 to 2019, there were a few “stakeholders” meetings held by RQAW, the Carmel based firm coordinating the design and management of the project (RQAW moved their HQ to Fishers in 2018.)

I asked repeatedly: “How much is the project over budget?” At the second meeting, RQAW Owner Troy Woodruff stated around $16 million. This would equate to $8 million per Fishers and Hamilton County since the original agreement stated cost overruns would be split equally and the interpretation was 50/50, regardless if there were change orders Fishers requested or caused that resulted in the extra expenses.

The massive underground drainage project has been cast as one of the primary drivers of the excess costs since it was budgeted around $4 million, yet the final price was nearly $20 million! Another recent development has been the claim that costs projected in 2015 were unrealistic and didn’t take into account inflation and the success of the economy, which had led to increased labor and material costs.

Ground was broken for the first interchange in the fall of 2019 at 126th and SR37: it opened over a year later in November 2020. Nearly five years have passed since the announcement was made and ONLY one interchange has been completed. In October 2020, it was revealed to the County Council that RQAW was no longer involved in the project; for the first time it was announced that the Hamilton County Highway Director and the Fishers City Engineer would be jointly responsible for the project. It was also stated the “current” projected cost was estimated to be $166.7 million, which represents an overrun of $42.7 million, even though some internal documents stated it was between $50-52 million.

This translates to an overage of at least $21.35 million apiece, or a 172% increase! This is based on just one interchange actually being open, with four more to be built.

In late 2020, I opposed approving Fishers’ request for $5.6 million in additional funding of the project based on the city’s failure to comply with terms of the original agreement . Fishers failed to supply quarterly reports on the project’s expenses, not only to the County Council, but also the Fishers City Council. And I don’t believe Hamilton County should contribute more money than Fishers, which it would if the County acted before ahead of the City. Unfortunately, I was outvoted 5-2 in December 2020.

As of January 1, 2021, there is a new majority on the Hamilton County Council, and it has no track record on this subject. I believe it will act similar to the newly established Democratic majority in Congress and vote to approve any and all cost overruns with no regard to fiscal accountability. In addition, I see other projects spearheaded by the Commissioners or Mayors being funded either through new bonds or cash funded by the County’s healthy cash reserves of nearly $60 million. There is also the matter of the original agreement with INDOT stipulating the project must be completed by September 2023: yet only one interchange is open as of late November 2020 and the 146th Street interchange is not projected to be completed until 2022.

This leaves three interchanges on SR37 to be built between 2022 and 2023.

Next up: the massive 146th and Allisonville Interchange Project with a price tag of $36 million and then converting each intersection to an interchange on 146th Street between Carey Road and River Road at an average “minimum” cost of $20-23 million EACH.

Watch the clock, and your wallet: the spending is about to commence…Tick tock, tick tock. Rick McKinney is the past President of the HamCo County Council having served 24 years as an At Large councilor. He is the Senior Policy Analyst for the FCOHC having recently joined this group in January of 2021. This is his first blog offering and it was done in part to augment the series already undertaken by board President Bill Smythe but from a "councilors" perspective. The last in the series can be found here and the first two have links embedded within the blog. The Fiscal Conservatives of Hamilton County is an multi-partisan organization of Hamilton County, Indiana residents who are volunteers focused on fiscal policy and fiscal issues. It is free of outside control by any individual, organization or group. It exists to distribute opinions on issues affecting Hamilton County residents. Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the FCoHC or its board members.

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