SPECIAL REPORT: Thursday is deadline for Indiana Toll Road bill

| 2/28/2006

A bill before the Indiana Senate would authorize Gov. Mitch Daniels to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign group for $3.85 billion.

Senators are considering possible amendments to the bill - HB 1008 - that would authorize a 75-year lease of the 157-mile toll route to a Spanish-Australian consortium. It is the biggest chunk of the Republican governor's 10-year, $10.6 billion statewide construction plan.

The bill, which was approved by the House early this month, has until Thursday, March 2, to win approval in the Senate.

If approved, it would head to a conference committee made up of select members of the House and Senate. Those conference committee members would have to reach agreement on all of the bill's provisions. If they are able to hammer out a compromise version of the bill, it would need one last favorable vote in both chambers before it could head to the governor's desk for his signature.

Since the bill passed the House, lawmakers have made several changes to the bill.

Among the modifications is a provision that would require legislative approval of any future public-private partnerships to toll existing or planned highways. Daniels has said he wants to make a planned extension of Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Evansville a private toll road.

Another change would set aside $400 million in a trust fund that could not be tapped until it grows to $1 billion. At that time, interest from the fund could be used to help pay for highway projects beyond the state's 10-year transportation plan.

Another change would allow annual tax credits for tolls incurred by many Indiana residents. It would allot for a maximum annual credit of $300 for residents who file an individual income tax return during the next decade. But those credits are not available for small-business truckers.

Dropped from the bill was a House-approved provision that sought to place a 10-year freeze on tolls for passenger vehicles that belong to residents in Indiana Toll Road counties.

The bill's Senate sponsor, Sen. Robert Meeks, R-LaGrange, was concerned unequal pricing would violate the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. constitution.

"It's unconstitutional to (freeze tolls). There's no way to regulate that," Meeks told Land Line prior to the bill's passage from a Senate panel.

Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Sydney, Australia, and the Cintra firm, based in Madrid, Spain, bid to lease the toll road for $3.85 billion. The bid needs approval from the state's Legislature to be completed.

In the next decade, supporters said the lease would cover a gap of $2.8 billion needed for road and bridge work throughout the state. The seven Indiana Toll Road counties would receive 34 percent of net proceeds.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association remains strongly opposed to the sale and leasing of America's roadways to foreign investors.

OOIDA believes the toll road is not the governor's to sell and that it belongs to the people of Indiana and to the highway users who have paid for it and continue to pay for it with their tolls and taxes.

"The governor is mortgaging the future of the state of Indiana," said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer, who traveled to Indiana earlier in February to testify against the bill.

"These leases sound like a lot of money on the front end, but what about when the money runs out? What do you put on the auction block next?"

Those truckers or other members of the public who would like to contact Indiana senators regarding the toll road bill should do so immediately.

To find out who your state senators and representatives are and to get their contact information, visitwww.vote-smart.org and key in your nine-digit ZIP code. If you don't know the full nine-digit ZIP, the site does provide a link to assist with getting the last four digits.

You can e-mail Indiana lawmakers by clicking here: http://in.gov/legislative/legislators/listing.html.

You can also call the OOIDA Membership Department at 1-800-444-5791 and they can find the contact information for you.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor