Friday, April 15, 2011 – A bill that would give the Indiana governor greater authority on toll projects in the state is nearing passage in the Legislature.
House lawmakers on Thursday, April 14, wrapped up two days of changes to the bill that initially sought to take decisions about using state money or partnering with private groups for toll roads completely out of the hands of state lawmakers.
Since 2006, state law has mandated legislative approval to build or convert existing highways to toll roads. Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Major Moves” initiative was highlighted by the authorization to lease the Indiana Toll Road for $3.85 billion. The lease deal with a Spanish-Australian consortium runs to 2081.
As amended on the House floor Thursday, a clarification is included that the governor and the state Department of Transportation could decide whether to sign deals with private companies to build toll roads. Legislative approval would still be necessary to convert existing roadways to toll roads.
“We will not convert any current free roads or free highways into a tollway without consent of the General Assembly,” Rep. Ed Soliday, the bill’s House sponsor, told lawmakers.
The change also would authorize the governor to add toll lanes, including truck-only lanes and high-occupancy toll lanes, to existing roadways as long as free lanes are not reduced.
“They will be permitted, without legislative approval, to add toll lanes, including high-occupancy lanes, to existing highways as long as the number of non-tolled lanes doesn’t decrease,” Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, explained to lawmakers on the House floor. “They could have a truck lane on I-70, but they couldn’t take away the lanes we already have.”
In 2007, the federal government allotted a $5 million grant to Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio to study adding truck-only lanes along the stretch of Interstate 70 crossing the four states.
The Corridors of the Future program proposes adding four dedicated truck lanes, two in each direction, along the interstate from Kansas City, MO, to the Bridgeport, OH, area.
The volume of freight movement along I-70 and the enticement for additional truck traffic to access the special lanes are listed as benefits of the project.
“These options make I-70 a reasonable candidate for a tolled facility,” according to a DOT website highlighting the program.
The Interstate 69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville would be unaffected by the bill. The project already under construction is prohibited from being a toll road.
Another change to the bill would limit the governor’s power to 10 years. As introduced the bill included a four-year window, but that was deleted in a House committee.
Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, has expressed concern about handing over sole responsibility on toll decisions to one person.
“The value in legislative review is that it makes sure the general public has a chance to weigh in on issues such as relocation of homes and, above all, the impact that tolls will have on them financially,” Riecken said in a statement.
The State Budget Agency would be authorized to conduct a review of any proposed public-private project, but they could not take a vote. Prior to the review, feasibility and economic impact studies would be conducted on the proposal. The public could also comment on the issue before the governor announces his decision.
Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the current setup hinders the state’s ability to move quickly in setting up deals with private groups for road work.
“Having the legislature vote on each project creates problems. The ability to act in a timely way is important to getting successful (public-private partnerships) and optimizing dollars,” Soliday said.
The bill – SB473 – awaits a final House floor vote that could occur as soon as Friday, April 15. If approved, the Senate would need to sign off on changes to the bill before moving to the governor’s desk.
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