Indiana Senate OKs toll road proposal

| 2/14/2007

A bill that would clear the way for two privately run toll roads in Indiana was approved by the state's Senate this week.

Senators voted 36-13 Monday, Feb. 12, to advance the Republican-led bill, which includes a provision that would ensure some legislative oversight of the proposed projects.

The bill now heads to the House where the prospects of passage are uncertain. Democrats control the Indiana House by a razor-thin 51-49 margin. Support for privatization, including the Indiana Toll Road lease, has been split down party lines in Indiana, with the Democrats generally opposing the concept.

Touted by Republican 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, 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 say the projects would relieve congestion and help the economy, The Associated Press reported.

Opponents say 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 added to the bill is 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 say the change was meaningless because the governor would still have ultimate authority to build the roads, The AP reported.

The bill is awaiting assignment to committee in the House.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor