SPECIAL REPORT: Indiana Senate panel debates bill to lease toll road

| 2/6/2006

A bill that would authorize Gov. Mitch Daniels to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian group for nearly $4 billion is scheduled for debate this week in an Indiana Senate panel.

Sen. Robert Meeks, R-LaGrange, told Land Line that the panel he chairs, the Senate Appropriations Committee, will take up the leasing bill Thursday, Feb. 9. The House approved the bill already on a 52-28 party line vote, siding with the Republican governor.

The bill, which is the largest part of the governor's "Major Moves" road plan, is expected to undergo a few changes in committee.

"We're going to try to modify it somewhat. Tone it down a little," Meeks said. "There are some things in there that need to be fixed."

Among the likely modifications is removal of a provision that would place a 10-year freeze on tolls for passenger vehicles that belong to residents in Indiana Toll Road counties.

The provision was added to the bill - HB1008 - during debate on the House floor.

"It's unconstitutional to (freeze tolls). There's no way to regulate that," Meeks said.

"There is a cleaner way to do that. We might give everybody that travels there, up to a $150 tax credit on their tax bill for tolls they incurred during the year. That might be a better way to do it."

Some House Republicans, specifically those from districts that include the toll road, had wavered about backing the bill. But observers said the GOP-led changes approved Feb. 2 shored up support that was needed to pass the bill along party lines.

Another amendment added to appease House Republicans would create a regional authority to coordinate economic development projects in Elkhart, Steuben and LaGrange counties and provide $100 million in the next decade to help finance them, The Associated Press reported.

That revenue could come from an up-front payment of $3.85 billion that Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Sydney, Australia, and the Cintra firm, based in Madrid, Spain, bid to lease the toll road for 75 years. The bid needs separate approval from the state's Senate.

GOP lawmakers turned down several House Democrats' bids to further alter the bill's language. Among the rejected proposals were calls to finance more highway projects through existing bonding methods and postpone legislative action on the leasing plan until public hearings could be held and more study done.

"There will come a day when the truth will come out, and this bad deal is not only going to bite those who vote for it, it's going to hurt your constituents," House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, warned lawmakers, according to The Associated Press.

In the next decade, the lease would more than cover a gap of $2.8 billion needed for road and bridge work throughout the state, as well as pay for an extension of Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Evansville and make it a private toll road.

A private lease would include a noncompete clause barring the state from building a new east-west highway within 10 miles north or south of the toll road. And the state would have to compensate the toll road operator if it built more than 20 miles of east-west highway within the buffer zone.

Meeks said the committee likely would hold three hearings on the bill before voting on it Feb. 23. The House would have to sign off on any changes before sending it to the governor.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor