Indiana, Illinois squabble over toll discounts

| 6/7/2007

Scheduled toll increases and a planned discount program for residents of seven Indiana counties have upset Illinois users of the Indiana Toll Road.

Officials from the two states spent the past few weeks locked in a battle about the discount program. Illinois officials asked the toll road’s private operator, ITR Concession Co., to extend discounts to frequent users from outside the seven-county area.

But so far, ITR has not budged.

The debate unfurled as officials for ITR – a consortium of the foreign companies Cintra of Spain and Macquarie of Australia – planned to begin electronic toll collection in mid-June.

The electronic system was to be in place from the Illinois border to Portage, IN, by mid-June. Electronic tolling is scheduled for the entire 157-mile length of the road by the end of 2007.

When that happens, ITR officials plan to enact the required discounts for residents of the seven counties the toll road passes through.

Everyone else will pay full price, which was a negotiating point between the consortium and the Indiana state government – particularly Gov. Mitch Daniels with his “Major Moves” transportation plan – leading up to the lease of the toll road for 75 years for $3.85 billion in 2006.

Illinois residents and Hoosiers outside the seven-county area might not be so upset about discounts or even the full price, as it stands, if toll rates weren’t scheduled to go up.

The Indiana Legislature and Daniels approved the increases before the lease deal was signed. A scheduled increase that took effect April 1 pushed rates up 25 percent for heavy trucks, from $18 to $22.50. Tolls doubled for passenger vehicles to $8.

A toll road spokesman explained the reasoning behind the localized discounts.

“Part of the deal for getting Major Moves passed was to create that frequent-user or local discount,” ITR Concession Co. spokesman Matt Pierce told Land Line back in April.

The state allocated $60 million from the Major Moves lease toward a subsidy fund earmarked to ease the toll burden of residents of the seven Indiana counties.

ITR had no way to localize the discounts until the unveiling of the electronic tolling system of choice, called I-Zoom.

I-Zoom is part of the E-ZPass system and is compatible with the I-Pass system that Illinois uses. I-Zoom allows the toll operator to distinguish the vehicle’s residency as it passes through the toll collection area.

Illinois has historically welcomed Hoosiers who have long-held I-Passes to pay the same rates as Illinois residents on the Illinois Tollway. As of press time, Illinois officials threatened to charge outsiders more in retaliation to the plan by ITR officials to stick with the I-Zoom discount for the select Indiana residents only.

Electronic tolling requires a driver of a vehicle to set up an account with the road operator, which issues an electronic a transponder to trigger toll transactions at highway speed. Some people use it to save time and many times, electronic tolls cost a driver less than cash transactions.

The option of paying cash is still viable on all toll roads in both states.

By David Tanner, staff writer