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INDOT gets O.K. to spend $256M on welcome center overhaul, despite lawmaker skepticism

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INDOT gets O.K. to spend $256M on welcome center overhaul, despite lawmaker skepticism

Jun 12, 2024 | 12:02 pm ET
By Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
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INDOT gets O.K. to spend $156M on welcome center overhaul, despite lawmaker skepticism
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Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) Chief Financial Officer Joe Gustin (left) and Statewide Facilities Director Steve McAvoy answer questions on rest stop cost estimates at a Tuesday, June 11, 2024 meeting of the State Budget Committee. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Your road trip may soon get swankier.

The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) on Tuesday won budgetary approval to pour $256 million into “welcome center” rest areas and truck parking at multiple highway locations around the state.

That’s even though lawmakers on the State Budget Committee expressed skepticism about the high price tag.

Is this the fanciest rest stop Indiana’s ever had?

“We are trying to turn these into destinations,” Statewide Facilities Director Steve McAvoy told the body.

Indiana’s rest stops mostly date back to the mid-60s, he said — and they look it.

“The current Welcome Centers have not been positive first impressions for travelers and the new or reconstructed Centers will be gateways to Indiana with architectural elements that match the region in which they are located,” INDOT said in its request.

And, there’s not enough truck parking, per McAvoy, leaving commercial drivers to park their 18-wheelers along the side of the highway.

So INDOT has embarked on a 13-year revamp. It involves replacing 16 of the state’s existing 27 rest areas and adding nearly 1,000 parking spots.

The agency has already gotten started, but appeared before the committee to request approval for its next tranche of funding.

The request, according to the committee’s agenda, would go toward welcome centers at Black River, Centerville, Clear Creek, Kankakee, Lebanon and Pigeon Creek. It would also cover truck parking additions to all of those facilities, as well as to Taylorsville.

Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, balked at the price tag.

“Forty-two million dollars apiece, on average, is a heck of a welcome center,” Garten said. “… So help me understand.”

McAvoy said the buildings are expected to cost a fraction of the total: $11 million to $12 million each. A third of the $42 million average will actually go to pavement, he estimated.

That’s because, per McAvoy, each truck parking spot at the recently opened Kankakee Welcome Center cost $45,000. They’re supported by 14 inches of concrete underfoot.

INDOT gets O.K. to spend $256M on welcome center overhaul, despite lawmaker skepticism
Sen. Chris Garten questions agency representatives at a Tuesday, June 11, 2024 meeting of the State Budget Committee. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

While Garten ended his questioning, other lawmakers were less convinced.

Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, asked INDOT representatives for the return on investment.

“The total returns are not hard financial dollars. You can’t — it’s hard to place a value on a return when the traveling public has a facility that meets their needs,” INDOT Chief Financial Officer Joe Gustin replied.

Qaddoura said that, as someone working in and teaching about the financial industry, he could quantify the return. And he questioned the decision to spend on rest stops.

“I teach my students: for every dollar you invest in bucket A is a strategic decision to take the dollars from bucket B,” he said.

He added that it’s a “quarter-billion dollars worth of investments in welcome centers at a time I know for a fact that there are higher priority projects across the state.”

Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, noted the less-than-stellar condition of the state’s older rest areas. Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenwood, said he’d gotten plenty of constituent complaints about the lack of rest stops.

The State Budget Committee approved requests by voice vote, in one lump adoption of the agenda. Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, abstained in protest of requests by the state’s economic development agency.