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3/15/2006
SPECIAL REPORT: Lawmakers OK Indiana Toll Road lease

The Indiana General Assembly approved a bill late Tuesday, March 14, that would authorize Gov. Mitch Daniels to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign group for 75 years at a cost of $3.85 billion.

It now heads to the governor's desk for his signature.

The bill cleared the House without a single vote to spare. Fifty-one of 52 Republicans voted to send the bill to the governor. The chamber's 48 Democrats voted against the effort.

Senators approved it 31-19 shortly thereafter, with two Democrats joining 29 Republicans in support of the governor's "Major Moves" initiative. Four Senate Republicans voted against it and four Senate Democrats did not cast votes.

Most Democrats objected to authorizing Daniels to lease of the 157-mile toll route to a Spanish-Australian consortium - Cintra and Macquarie Infrastructure Group. The lease is the biggest chunk of the Republican governor's 10-year, $10.6 billion statewide construction plan.

A big point of contention for opponents is the logic and fiscal sense of giving up control of a state asset such as the Indiana Toll Road - and its revenue stream - for 75 years in exchange for a decade-long road program. All toll revenue, including toll increases that are built into the deal, would go to the foreign consortium leasing the road.

The governor and most Republicans, however, touted the plan as a way to help pay for transportation projects and create tens of thousands of jobs.

Prior to the House vote, Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, reiterated to his fellow legislators what public opinion has been on the lease deal.

"Gov. Daniels is not the governor of Australia; he is not the governor of Spain. He is supposed to listen to the taxpayers and you are, too," Dobis said, according to The Associated Press .

Republicans said they recognized the possibility of a backlash this November in some districts for supporting the governor's plan.

"We acknowledge that it's very, very hurtful to a likely Republican majority in the House the next time around," Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, told The Indianapolis Star .

As the clocked ticked closer to midnight Tuesday night, tempers continued to flare on the House floor as the final vote neared.

House Minority Leader Pat Bauer of South Bend asked for more time to allow Democrats to review the bill. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, begrudgingly yielded to the request but not before admonishing Democrats for stalling the process.

Democrats then walked off the floor, denying a quorum needed to vote on the bill for about a half hour before they returned for the debate, The AP reported.

Besides the toll lease, the revised bill would allow the governor to build an extension of Interstate 69 as a toll road from Evansville to Martinsville. However, the governor would need to get legislative approval to make the final 25 miles of the planned route from Martinsville to Indianapolis a toll road.

It also would require the proposed extension to be shifted west of Perry Township in southern Indianapolis.

Noncommercial cars and trucks would be exempt from planned toll increases this spring under the bill.

Electronic tolling eventually would be installed allowing motorists with special devices in those vehicles to bypass toll booths and then be sent bills. They also would receive 40 percent fare discounts.

The proposed deal would include additional money to counties along the toll road as well as allot $500 million to be set aside in a trust fund for roads. Interest from the money could be tapped every five years, beginning in 2011.

The toll road operators would also be exempt from paying property taxes for the route, but their income would be subject to state corporate taxes.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor
keith_goble@landlinemag.com

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