To the Point for 2/2/2006


THERE’S SOME MAJOR MOVES going on in Indianapolis, and the decision that will ultimately be made by our state legislators will have an impact that will reach well out into our state’s future.

“Major Moves” is an initiative set forth by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, and involves signing a long term lease with a private company to operate the toll road in the Northwest portion of the state. It is the major thoroughfare that connects commuters who live in “the region” to their jobs in and around Chicago.

For years the state has had a variety of road projects on the table — everything from finally building the extension of Interstate 69 to connect Indianapolis with Evansville to making major improvements to the highways around Indianapolis to ease what is becoming horrible traffic gridlock going to and from work.

There are all kinds of these projects proposed around the state, but the problem is and has always been — money.

As much as you think a project has merit and is important, if you don’t have the cash, you can’t lay very much pavement.

Indiana is known as the “Crossroads of the Nation”, but lately those crossroads have been pitted with potholes.

Into the mix walks a consortium of private companies from Spain and Australia. Their plan is to lease the toll road from the state and operate it like a private business. The lease would run for 75 years, and the consortium would pay the state a fee to operate the road.

$3.85 billion.

Billion — with a “b”.

I spend a few days in Indianapolis last week, and had the opportunity to hear some of the debate and speak with legislators, and as it stood then, here’s the general proposal:

The company writes the state a check — a BIG check.

They begin operating the toll road, and are responsible for any and all maintenance done on the road, and must do that to state specifications. They pay all of the toll booth workers and other employees. They guarantee that, barring a major catastrophe, the road will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The state promises to not make any significant improvements to roads within a certain distance of the toll road that would serve the same travelers. This is to keep the state from leasing the road, then building or improving a road near it that would take traffic away from the toll road.

If you’re the consortium, that makes sense.

Here’s the kicker: if at any time the consortium decides that it doesn’t want to be in the toll road business, or if it defaults in any way, the state gets the road back — but gets to keep all the money.

Estimates say that if the state puts the check in the bank for a year before starting any projects, it would net about $165 million in interest.

The governor says that he will direct the Indiana Department of Transportation to take all of this money and begin to finally build the roads that have always been talked about, and make major improvements to others around the state.

This improves our traffic; makes the state more attractive to industry that may potentially move into the state; opens up Southwestern Indiana to development; and it puts a lot of people to work, because these projects are going to need lots of manpower.

Those people will need places to eat lunch. They’ll buy new appliances for their homes. They might purchase a new vehicle. They’ll need some tools.

The dollars will move through our economy many times, and will help create many peripheral jobs.

So what’s the rub ? Well, the toll fee is going to go up, and people who drive on the toll road everyday don’t like that one bit. The governor has said that the tolls are going to go up regardless of whether or not the lease is approved, so the rise in toll doesn’t affect the decision, because the road is currently losing money.

A proposal by a legislator last week tossed out the notion of giving those people a rebate on their state taxes of half of their tolls up to $300 per year.

The seven counties that the toll road runs through would also receive a percentage of the revenues to help improve their county roads.

Maybe — just maybe — Switzerland County officials can jump start talks about extending Highway 101 to the north with some of the proceeds; which would open up Southeastern Indiana, too.

The county has been told for years that 101 was a good idea, but the money just wasn’t there. Well, if the state’s going to spend around $200 million for I-69, seems to me like the 101 extension would be nothing in the grand scheme of things.

So why hasn’t this lease been signed? Well, sadly, like other issues that could really have a long lasting impact on our daily lives, this political football has turned into the Super Bowl of partisanship.

Republicans love it. Democrats hate it. The line is drawn right down the statehouse aisle. Listen to one party for a bit, and you’ll be squarely on their side. Go sit in with members of the other party, and you’ll quickly change your mind.

What really irks me is that everyone picked a side based on who has the ball.

Republican Governor — Republican lawmakers think this is the Savior of the State; while the Democrats think we’re making a deal with the Devil.

In Indy last week, I couldn’t help but feel that had the same deal been offered to Evan Bayh, Frank O’Bannon, or Joe Kernan; there would be the same two-sided passion — but everyone would be on the other side.

What lawmakers need to do is to sit down and look at this without having their “party hats” on; and make the decision that is best for the people who live here. I know there’s an election coming up, but give voters some credit — agree or disagree, at least we’ll be voting for someone who makes up his or her own mind rather than blindly following political party leadership.

This is a breakwater measure for this state, and now is the time to carefully weigh all of the options. As the governor has named it, it really is a “major move.”