State lawmakers seeking more oversight of toll road lease decisions

State lawmakers are discussing ways to increase oversight of the Indiana Toll Road after the governor's recent plan for steep fee hikes on the road was approved with no involvement from legislators.

In September, the Indiana Finance Authority approved an amendment to its lease with the operator Indiana Toll Road Concession Co. that allowed the company to increase toll road fees by 35 percent for heavy vehicles.

In exchange for the fee hike, the Indiana Toll Road Concession agreed to pay the state a total $1 billion through 2020 and invest an additional $50 million in toll road improvements.

The fee increase went into effect in October.

The lease amendment did not require legislative approval, which surprised and upset some state lawmakers. During a State Budget Committee meeting Tuesday, the issue resurfaced as committee members heard a presentation on the amendment and the funds the state will receive from it.

“This is a major change in the lease,” Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said. “I had no discussion. I don’t know if anybody else had any discussion.”

Porter described the action as disingenuous since the Legislature had been involved in creating the Major Moves fund, which is overseen by the Indiana Department of Transportation and where the $1 billion the state will receive from the lease amendment is expected to be deposited.

“At this point, it is what it is, but it’s duly noted,” Porter said.

Gov. Eric Holcomb plans to use the $1 billion to expand broadband access, add more biking and hiking trails, improve roadways, attract more direct international flights and accelerate construction on the last leg of the Interstate 69 project.

After the meeting, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ryan Mishler said there is an ongoing discussion on how lawmakers can make sure they are involved in future amendments to the toll road lease.

“I feel there has to be some legislative oversight on this lease agreement,” said Mishler, R-Bremen.

One option being considered is to require any proposals to be reviewed by the State Budget Committee, which includes budget leaders from both chambers.

Mishler said they’re also discussing whether some of the projects Holcomb has proposed to spend the $1 billion on qualify as “transportation” projects, because the Major Moves fund must be spent on roads and transportation.

Specifically, Mishler questioned the $90 million to be spent on growing the number of hiking, biking and riding trails and $100 million to be spent on expanding broadband to rural communities.

“I’m not saying these things aren’t important, but if we’re going to run them out of INDOT, are trails and broadband transportation projects?” Mishler said. “Now I know they talked about the flights—there’s an argument that that is transportation… But trails and broadband, I think would be a stretch to be considered roads and transportation projects.”

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