Toll road proposal advances in Indiana

| 1/30/2007

An Indiana Senate panel has approved a bill that would clear the way for two privately run toll roads in the state.

The Senate Homeland Security, Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committee voted 8-3 Tuesday, Jan. 30, to approve the bill after adding a provision that would ensure some legislative oversight of the proposed projects.

Touted by Gov. Mitch Daniels, the bill – SB1 – would allow a private group to build and operate a toll route through five counties neighboring Indianapolis. The proposed 75-mile Indiana Commerce Connector would link Interstate 69 northeast of the city with Interstate 70 to the southwest.

The state would get money upfront and use it to help build the planned extension of I-69 through southern Indiana.

Sponsored by Sen. Thomas Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, chairman of the Senate transportation committee, the bill would also remove the state’s authority to collect tolls along a portion of I-69.

In return for that assurance, Daniels’ proposed connector project could be tolled. Tolling authority for I-69 from Evansville to Martinsville was part of the Republican governor’s Major Moves legislation from 2006 that included privatizing the Indiana Toll Road.

Wyss said he supports the connector because it will keep I-69 toll-free for the entire length of the route from Evansville to Indianapolis.

Another provision in the bill would authorize the proposed Illiana Expressway to be privately funded. The 63-mile, limited-access route is intended to relieve congestion in northwestern Indiana and near Chicago.

Bill proponents said the projects would relieve congestion and help the economy, The Associated Press, reported.

Opponents said that it is unclear how much economic growth the proposed projects would generate and whether they would significantly reduce traffic on surrounding highways.

An amendment was added to the bill Tuesday intended as an olive branch to those weary of the state’s powers to sign deals with private groups. The change would set up a review panel for each of the two projects that would meet to review plans for the roads as they progress.

Critics of the plan said the change was meaningless because the governor would still have ultimate authority to build the roads, The AP reported.

The bill now moves to the full Senate for further consideration.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor