Ind. highway funds in jeopardy unless stricter drunken driving laws passed

$40M in federal highway money on the line

INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana is fighting to preserve more than $40 million in federal highway money that it could lose over a disagreement on the strength of its drunken driving laws. 

State leaders say Washington is being arbitrary and unreasonable. 

The dispute is over a revised federal interpretation of Indiana's laws on open containers and repeat drunk driving offenders. 

When the laws were enacted eight years ago, Indiana received written certification that they met federal standards. 

Now, even though neither federal nor state laws have changed, Washington officials have reinterpreted Indiana's statutes and say they don't measure up.

"It gets very specific very quickly," said INDOT spokesperson Will Wingfield. "But it relates to open container laws and the hours of community service that someone who's a repeat intoxicated offender would have to do. And Indiana already has strict laws in that regard."

If Indiana doesn't change its law, Washington will remove more than $40 million now available for highway construction and repair and force the state to re-direct it to safety projects. 

INDOT said that would be forcing the state to create make-work projects.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Tom Wyss, who fought for years to strengthen Indiana's drunken driving laws, is angry that Washington has changed its mind on something it approved years ago.

"I could be facetious about this and say that we didn't vote for the current president out of our state this time," said Wyss, R-Fort Wayne. "But it's really kind of interesting, because it's like I said, we went through this once before. They certainly better not withhold any funds on us, because we were given the green light and the OK on this back years ago."

House Roads Committee Chairman Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, has introduced a bill to make the fixes Washington is demanding.

Highway officials believe they can rush through changes in Indiana law in time to avert the loss of the money. 
But they said they don't understand why they have to when the same law that they have now was deemed to be in compliance in the past.

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