Indiana House OKs tolling authority bill

| 4/18/2011

A bill to give the Indiana governor greater authority on toll projects in the state is one vote away from passage in the Legislature.

Since 2006, state law has mandated legislative approval to build or convert existing highways to toll roads. Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Major Moves” initiative was highlighted by the authorization to lease the Indiana Toll Road for $3.85 billion. The lease deal with a Spanish-Australian consortium runs to 2081.

House lawmakers on Friday, April 15, voted 73-18 to approve a bill that would allow the governor and the state Department of Transportation to decide whether to use state money or sign deals with private companies to build toll roads.

A change made to the bill on the House floor Thursday, April 14, specified that legislative approval would still be necessary to convert existing roadways to toll roads.

“We will not convert any current free roads or free highways into a tollway without consent of the General Assembly,” Rep. Ed Soliday, the bill’s House sponsor, told lawmakers.

Another provision in the bill would authorize the governor to add toll lanes, including truck-only lanes and high-occupancy toll lanes, to existing roadways as long as free lanes are not reduced.

“They will be permitted, without legislative approval, to add toll lanes,” Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, explained to lawmakers during floor discussion. “They could have a truck lane on I-70, but they couldn’t take away the lanes we already have.”

In 2007, the federal government allotted a $5 million grant to Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio to study adding truck-only lanes along the stretch of Interstate 70 crossing the four states.

The Corridors of the Future program proposes adding four dedicated truck lanes, two in each direction, along the interstate from Kansas City, MO, to the Bridgeport, OH, area.

The volume of freight movement along I-70 and the enticement for additional truck traffic to access the special lanes are listed as benefits of the project.

“These options make I-70 a reasonable candidate for a tolled facility,” according to a DOT website highlighting the program.

The Interstate 69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville would be unaffected by the bill. The project already under construction is prohibited from being a toll road.

Critics of the bill expressed concern about handing over sole responsibility on toll decisions to one person.

“Much of this stuff is nothing less than financial engineering. The people who would like to invest know how to protect themselves. They make darn sure the tolls are collected,” DeLaney said. “This body is the public’s protection on highways. And we’re conceding that to people we don’t know.”

The State Budget Agency would be authorized to conduct a review of any proposed public-private project, but they could not take a vote. Prior to the review, the proposal would have feasibility and economic impact studies conducted. The public could also comment on the issue before the governor announces his decision.

Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said the current setup hinders the state’s ability to move quickly in setting up deals with private groups for road work. He said this bill simplifies the process while protecting the public.

“I think we’ve got a lot of controls in place. It’s good for our state. It makes us competitive with bidders,” Soliday told lawmakers.

The bill – SB473 – now moves to the Senate for approval of changes before it heads to the governor’s desk.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Indiana, click here.

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