Indiana governor pursues more tolls, higher fees

| Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Gov. Mitch Daniels is looking for private investors to take over the Indiana Toll Road.

In the meantime, plans are to go ahead and hike tolls along the 157-mile route by as much as 120 percent for large trucks and 72 percent for cars. The state also will look into how to keep truckers off alternate routes.

The initiatives are part of the governor’s 10-year, $10.6 billion statewide construction plan dubbed “Major Moves.”

To pay for the plan, the state is preparing for offers by several private firms to lease the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years, Daniels said. Bids for the lease are due by Jan. 20.

“There’s a good chance that again, we’ll be offered money that we could not generate in this state without doubling the gas tax, or doing something equally unthinkable,” the Republican governor told WISE-TV in Fort Wayne.

The lease amount – estimated at more than $2 billion – would help the state to cover a gap of $2.8 billion needed for road and bridge work throughout the state for the next decade as well as possibly pay for an extension of Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Evansville.

In return for taking over operation and maintenance of the toll road, a private group would keep the revenue from tolls.

Any leasing plans would require approval from the Indiana General Assembly. With that in mind, Rep. Randy Borror, R-Fort Wayne, will be carrying the governor’s plan.

Sen. Marvin Riegsecker, R-Goshen, said leasing the toll road would be a tough sell to lawmakers.

The Indiana Democratic Party recently launched an online petition to prevent Daniels from leasing the toll road.

Congress encouraged such public-private partnerships in the Highway Bill approved in August. The legislation authorizes $15 billion in tax-exempt bonds for privately financed highways and simplifies their environmental planning process.

Nearly 20 states utilize the partnerships in various forms, including California, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Virginia.

Daniels’ office plans to increase toll road fees on its own beginning this spring.

The governor said toll rates have not increased since 1985 and no longer meet maintenance needs.

Increases on the toll road would vary by distance driven. The toll for tractor-trailers traveling from the Illinois line to Ohio would increase from $14.55 to $32. Passenger vehicle rates for driving the same distance would rise from $4.65 to $8.

The toll increases would generate an estimated $770 million in 10 years.

“Very little of this will happen on a business-as-usual basis,” Daniels said in a written statement. “Without new approaches that stretch dollars and access new funding sources, only a fraction of these projects will happen within the next decade. Some will never happen.”

To help foot the bill, the state would rely on in-state and out-of-state vehicles. Figures from the Indiana Department of Transportation show that 66 percent of 2004 toll road revenues come from out-of-state vehicles, 18 percent from in-state cars and 16 percent from in-state truck traffic.

Concerns about higher toll fees are coming from local government officials and trucking industry groups.

South Bend, IN, Mayor Steve Luecke said he’s concerned about what would become of communities that rely on the toll road to support industries like warehousing and distribution.

“My biggest concern is losing control of a strong economic development asset, that tolls could rise too high, and make some of our local distribution and trucking companies non competitive,” Luecke told WNDU-TV in South Bend.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said Indiana truckers should demand a credit for fuel taxes paid on toll road miles.

“When you talk about more than doubling the toll rate set for vehicles operating on that road, you’re talking about a tremendous increase that most people would concur would be really hard to swallow,” Spencer said. “At a minimum, truckers should be urging state officials to approve allowing them to take a credit on their fuel taxes for miles run on the toll road.”

To guard against truckers diverting onto nearby U.S. 20 to avoid higher fees, Daniels said the state could redesignate the highway a state road. The change would enable weight limits to be put in place that would prohibit large truck traffic.

“A lot of pains will be taken to ensure there is not a diversion of traffic off the toll road,” Daniels told the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne.

Rick Craig, OOIDA’s director of regulatory affairs, said redesignating a U.S. federally funded highway as a state highway is not a simple process.

Craig said the portion of the highway that is part of the National Highway System would require authorization from the Federal Highway Administration to make the switch and ban trucks. For the rest of the road, a switch over simply would cost the state federal funding it now receives.

Spencer said, “The fact there is such a discussion (to reclassify the highway) points out what really is the underlying agenda for toll roads: these are moneymakers. The trucks that operate on those roads are nothing more than cash cows.”

The state’s transportation department is expected to hold public hearings to discuss the governor’s plans early next year. In the meantime, public comments on the proposed toll increase may be submitted to INDOT by mailing them to:

Chris Kiefer
Indiana Department of Transportation
100 N Senate Ave, Room N758
Indianapolis, IN 46204

Comments also can be sent via e-mail to ckiefer@indot.state.in.us, or by fax to (317) 232-0238.

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

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