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Editorial: Toll hike for heavy vehicles is smart boost for infrastructure

September 14, 2018

If tax hikes were as common as potholes, paying for infrastructure projects would be easy. Instead, Gov. Eric Holcomb and executives in other states are forced to get creative—or beg reluctant legislators to raise more revenue—just to keep up with basic maintenance.

Finding the money to do more than that is rare, yet that’s exactly what Holcomb has done with the just-announced Next Level Connections program, a politically palatable plan to raise $1 billion for new infrastructure.

The money will come in the form of three payments to the state between now and October 2020 from the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co., the private entity that runs the Indiana Toll Road in northern Indiana. To fund the payments, the Indiana Finance Authority is expected later this month to authorize a 35 percent increase in toll rates for heavy commercial vehicles that use the road.

Though the wide-ranging infrastructure program will result in road and other improvements in the seven toll-road counties, the bulk of the money will be spent in other parts of the state. That would be a problem if the burden of higher tolls fell on northern Indiana residents who regularly use the toll road. But passenger vehicles aren’t affected by the toll hikes. Only commercial operators will pay. And even after the increases, Indiana’s toll rates per mile for heavy vehicles will remain among the lowest in the country.

Predictably, some Democrats have panned the increases, but that’s to be expected from the party out of power. The money must come from somewhere or the projects won’t happen, and it’s hard to argue the improvements called for in Next Level Connections aren’t important.

It’s a diverse list that signals Indiana is dedicated to making the state an attractive place to live and invest. Among its major components:

a $100 million grant program to bring high-speed broadband service to unserved and underserved counties. (See story on page 1A.)

$90 million to install more hiking and biking trails throughout the state.

$600 million to accelerate completion of the last leg of Interstate 69, between Martinsville and Indianapolis, from 2027 to 2024.

$190 million for improvements to U.S. 31, 20 and 30.

$20 million for work to secure more nonstop international flights out of Indianapolis International Airport.

Next Level Connections is also expected to pay for improved rail service between Gary and Michigan City and to advance a plan to build the state’s fourth port, on the Ohio River near Lawrenceburg.

Make no mistake, finding the money to pay for infrastructure is a trick in an age when “no” is the default answer to any request for across-the-board tax increases. One source of road funds, the federal gasoline tax, has been stuck at 18 cents a gallon since 1993.

We applaud Holcomb and his administration for finding a responsible way to move Indiana forward, even in this age of public austerity.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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