Toll road operator declines to pay fire departments

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Associated Press

The costs of responding to crashes on the Indiana Toll Road have some local fire departments asking the highway’s private operator to help pay the bill.

The toll road company, though, said it would not change its stance that the departments should be seeking money from those responsible for the crashes.

A chain-reaction crash in April killed eight people on a toll road stretch east of South Bend where at least 12 others have died in accidents over the past two years.

Bristol Fire Chief William Dempster said his crews often stay on a crash scene for six hours or more fighting fires, removing the injured or killed and helping with cleanup. The cost for the work can reach into the thousands of dollars, he said.

“We’ve had two or three sets of fire gear destroyed,” Dempster said.

The Bristol department in the past sent a $1,500 bill to highway operator ITR Concession Co., but it was returned unpaid. Elkhart Fire Department officials said they got a similar response.

“We have been going up there for years for free, and I’m afraid we’re going to have to continue doing it for free,” Dempster said. “But it would be nice if we could at least recoup our expenses up there.”

Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration last year finalized the 75-year lease of the 157-mile northern Indiana highway to a Spanish-Australian consortium, which paid the state $3.8 billion and will collect all of the highway’s toll revenue over the term of the lease.

Matt Pierce, a spokesman for ITR Concession, said the company is not where the fire department should turn for payments.

“We believe the best course of action for fire and rescue departments to recover funds is to bill the person responsible for the accident,” Pierce said. “This would mirror the procedure we follow when our facility is damaged during an incident.”

Dempster said such a policy wasn’t realistic.

“That’s easier said than done,” he said. “If they’re out of state, they generally don’t pay.”

While the state had stopped paying local fire departments for their response work more than two decades ago, the Elkhart Fire Department did have a contract to respond to hazardous material spills on the toll road until this year.

“We were paid so much for that response based on hours and response,” Elkhart Chief Richard Snell said. “That doesn’t exist now.”

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