Controversial legislation could lead to truck-only toll lanes on I-70

Truck-only toll lanes along Interstate 70 are among potential projects that could result from a controversial bill that would allow the governor to authorize toll roads without an OK from the Legislature.

“What about truck-only lanes? That’s a possibility,” said Sen. Thomas Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, sponsor of Senate Bill 473.

Wyss cited I-70 truck lanes only as an example of the type of project the bill could expedite, but it so happens that very concept is already being studied by Indiana and three other states.

In 2007, the U.S. Department of Transportation provided a $5 million grant to Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio to study adding truck lanes to the 800 miles of I-70 crossing the four states.

Trucks would zoom down dedicated lanes that could be built alongside or in between existing I-70 lanes, such as in the median. The concept would reduce congestion and could improve safety because cars are usually on the losing end when colliding with trucks. Some portions of I-70 are so clogged with semis that one could practically jump from trailer to trailer.

Logistics firms might buy into the concept if additional trailers could be hitched to a tractor—improving productivity. Such a system could also include dedicated truck connections from the interstate to airports and other logistics hot spots.

The downside is the cost: potentially $14.5 billion for public highway agencies to build tolled truck lanes through four states.

“Tolls are one financing option,” says a website the states created for the project. Using tolls under a public-private agreement could reduce the public investment to $6.9 billion, according to the I-70 truck lane initiative being led by the Indiana Department of Transportation.

Asked if Gov. Mitch Daniels thinks the bill could be useful for the I-70 truck lane concept, his press secretary, Jane Jankowski, replied: ”There are no specific projects in mind.”

“The impetus for SB 473 is to put in place the ability to move forward more quickly if there is an idea for a public infrastructure project that comes forward,” she added.

Roads are Daniels’ legacy

But to suggest Daniels has no projects in mind is hard to believe, said opponents of SB 473—noting the governor has been fond of big-dollar highway projects.

Daniels pulled off what many for decades deemed improbable—starting construction of Interstate 69 in southern Indiana. It is one of 104 new roadway projects being built with more than $2.6 billion Daniels fetched from a long-term lease of the Indiana Toll Road.

In 2006, Daniels proposed the “Indiana Commerce Connector,” the beginnings of an outer loop parallel to I-465 to be built east and south of the city. The idea was that revenue generated from tolls on the connector could help fund construction of I-69 between Indianapolis and Martinsville, a stretch estimated to cost at least $1.3 billion.

But property owners in the path of the Commerce Connector project howled. In 2007, Daniels was forced to withdraw the proposal, with Democrats in the Indiana General Assembly vowing they’d kill it if Daniels didn’t.

Without public outcry and the Legislature in the way, “I believe he’d have bulldozed ahead” with the commerce connector, said Aaron Smith, founder of Watchdog Indiana, a Lebanon-based not-for-profit that focuses on tax issues.

Smith is dubious that the bill’s supporters claim they have no specific project in mind. He said he had attended legislative hearings on the bill and never once heard the potential for I-70 tolled truck lanes, he said.

“This thing has been designed to be under the radar,” he said of the bill. “It is not right for a single individual—the governor—to have complete power over toll road decisions. The impact of toll roads on working families is so significant that all 150 of our elected General Assembly public servants should continue to decide the fate of toll road projects.”

Less scrutiny of economics

Wyss’ bill doesn’t cut the Legislature entirely from the process. A series of public hearings would still be required for projects involving tolls, along with a legislative review. Ultimately, though, the governor has the final decision, under the bill.

Tolling involves a number of complex economic considerations. There’s a relationship, for example, between tolls and traffic flow on existing, non-tolled roads that run parallel to roads that are tolled.

I-69 mapSix years ago, INDOT ran various scenarios for tolling I-69, downstate. A non-tolled version of I-69 would reduce traffic volumes on U.S. 41, which runs parallel, by an estimated 20 percent to 40 percent, INDOT said. If I-69 were tolled, the traffic reduction on U.S. 41 would fall 1 percent to 10 percent.

“The concern for me is that there’s not even a requirement that the need for a road is demonstrated or for tolling [benefits] to be demonstrated,” said State Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson.

SB 473 would continue to require the Legislature’s approval for tolling of I-69 between Indianapolis and Martinsville. So might the current or a future governor contemplate toll roads on the sections farther south to pay for construction of the northern segment, which is currently not funded?

Wyss said no, noting that the southernmost section is already funded.

“We are using traditional means to build I-69—no tolls. This legislation does not change that,” Jankowski said.

“INDOT has no plans to toll I-69,” said Will Wingfield, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation.

Wyss contends all the bill does is allow for faster decision-making for new or improved roads. He estimated there’s $180 billion floating around that private investors would like to invest in roads through public partnerships. But many investors don’t want to wait years for a Legislature to vet a proposal, Wyss said. Approval for the Illiana Expressway, in northwestern Indiana, took about three years to get through the Legislature, he added.

Had the state started work on the Indiana Commerce Connector years ago, it might not have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars making improvements to I-69, northeast of Indianapolis, Wyss said.

Though neither Wyss nor the Daniels administration suggested the Commerce Connector idea is being revived, such legislation could prove worrisome for opponents to that project.

Indiana currently is among nine states with public-private partnership statutes that require some form of legislative approval for some or all such projects.•

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