Lawsuits say Indiana Toll Road lease unconstitutional

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Two lawsuits reportedly have been filed to block the $3.8 billion agreement to lease the Indiana Toll Road. According to the Indianapolis Star, State Budget Director Charles Schalliol signed the 75-year lease agreement with Macquarie-Cintra, an Australian-Spanish consortium, at 9 a.m. Wednesday, April 12. Less than two hours later, the lawsuits were filed in St. Joseph and Brown counties.

A group of seven citizens and the Indianapolis-based Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana filed the St. Joseph County lawsuit, arguing that Gov. Mitch Daniels’ effort to lease the Toll Road to a private firm was unconstitutional. A lawsuit filed by Bill Stant in Brown County also questioned the constitutionality of the lease: Stant is running for secretary of state under the Green Party.

Both lawsuits argue that the Indiana Constitution says any proceeds from the Toll Road lease must be used to pay down state debt. Daniels’ Major Moves transportation plan would use the $3.85 billion in lease money to fund statewide transportation projects, including a future extension of Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Evansville: The lease covers 75 years. State officials have said the Toll Road deal is a lease — not a sale.

The lawsuits were filed in time to take advantage of a 15-day window that allows challenges to the law that authorizes the Toll Road plan. Schalliol told the Star the court challenges are without merit. “We did a very careful analysis of the constitutionality of this before it was ever passed,” he says. “We believe there is no realistic reason the courts would declare this unconstitutional.”

Jane Jankowski, the governor’s press secretary, told the Star the lawsuits are “without merit” and are an effort to deprive Hoosiers of the “job opportunities and the economic development opportunities that Major Moves will provide.” Both lawsuits come as the state works to transfer control of the Toll Road to Macquarie-Cintra on June 30. “Come June 30th, if (the lawsuits are) not resolved, we’ll have to face some serious questions,” Schalliol told the Star. “But it’s our belief and intent that this will be resolved by then. We’re confident we will prevail in these lawsuits.”

All but two Democratic legislators in the Indiana General Assembly voted against the plan, and the bill passed the Republican-controlled House with the minimum of 51 “yes” votes. House Democratic leader B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, called the legal action “a necessary process,” but he stopped short of saying he was optimistic that the lawsuits would be victorious. “This needs review from an independent body that is not controlled by one man, the governor,” Bauer told the Star. “This may bring to light many, many questions people have been asking because this deal just doesn’t seem right to them, and maybe it isn’t.”

Steve Bonney, who led the effort to file the lawsuit in St. Joseph County, disagrees, saying his group sued to “stand up for the constitution.” Bonney is a West Lafayette farmer who ran for Congress in 1982 as a Democrat and has protested the current plan for the I-69 extension because it would pass through his 63-acre farm in Greene County. Bonney says the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana joined the effort to help raise money.

They’ve reeled in $65,000 to pay legal fees in the past five days, says Dave Menzer, a campaign organizer for the coalition. Menzer said half of that money came from truck drivers, angry about increased tolls that will come, in part, because of the Toll Road lease. Many of those contributions came from out-of-state truckers after Bonney discussed his effort on five trucking shows over satellite radio. “Truckers have contributed from virtually every state in the country with the exception of Hawaii,” Menzer told the Star.

But they’ll need to raise more, he adds, estimating a full-fledged legal fight could cost as much as $200,000. Arend Abel, the Indianapolis attorney representing the group, says he’s confident the deal to lease the Toll Road, and the law that allows it, will be overturned. “We’ve researched this, and we feel confident about this moving forward,” Abel told the Star. “We think we’ve done our homework.”

In Brown County, Stant says he filed his lawsuit because he’s against an I-69 extension. He says his lawsuit was not politically motivated even though he’s running for secretary of state. “I’m just a citizen standing up for my rights,” says Stant, who said attorneys have donated their services to help his court challenge. Stant told the Star he thinks the legal challenges to the Toll Road lease could go all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court.