Indiana lawmakers approve tolling authority bill

| 5/2/2011

The Indiana Legislature has approved a bill to give the governor greater authority on toll projects in the state.

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.

In the waning hours of the regular session on Friday, April, 29, House and Senate lawmakers approved 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. The bill – SB473 – now heads to Gov. Daniels’ desk for approval.

A conference committee made up of select members from the House and Senate reached agreement a day earlier on the bill that specifies legislative approval would still be necessary to convert existing roadways to toll roads.

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.

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 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.

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,” Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, explained. “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.

Rep. Ed Soliday, the bill’s House sponsor, 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, R-Valparaiso, recently told lawmakers.

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

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