Indiana Toll Road is an election issue

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The leasing of the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years to a foreign consortium that has increased tolls significantly will be a crucial issue in upcoming statehouse races, said Rep. B. Patrick Bauer, the top Democrat in the Indiana House.

Most Democrat legislators voted against the lease that began July 1, while most Republican legislators voted for it, said Bauer, the House minority leader. “Many races will be decided because the people didn’t want it to happen,” Bauer said. “They didn’t represent the people, they represented the governor.” Attempts to reach the Republican Senate Caucus headquarters for comment were unsuccessful.

The $3.85 billion lease is the funding centerpiece of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Major Moves plan, which he signed into law in March. It involves 200 highway construction projects and 200 highway preservation projects, as well as transportation funding to counties. State and federal gas tax revenue also will help pay for the plan.

This year, the first under the new lease, the toll for a big rig to travel the 157 miles across Indiana increased from $14.55 to $18. The terms of the lease dictate that the toll will increase in 2007 to $22.50, in 2008 to $27.25, and in 2009 to $32, more than double what it was before the lease was approved.

After that, the lease says the road’s new management can set each year’s toll rate increase based on the previous year’s Consumer Price Index or Gross Domestic Product, whichever is higher. In the past 25 years, the GDP has tended to be the higher, with an average year-to-year increase of 6 percent, Bauer said.

Truckers against the lease should vote for candidates who opposed it, said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. That will influence not only politicians in Indiana, but those in other states who are considering toll roads and privatization and who are watching Indiana’s races carefully, Spencer said.

Going into the November election, Republicans control both houses of the Indiana Legislature, as well as the governor’s mansion. Seven of Indiana’s nine U.S. House members are Republicans, as is its senior U.S. senator, 30-year veteran Richard Lugar, while the governor is President Bush’s former budget director.

The bulk of the toll road’s profits will go not to Indiana but to the road’s new manager, Bauer said. That private company is Statewide Mobility Partners, a business owned by the Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Australia and Cintra Concessions de Infraestructuras de Transport S.A. of Spain. In the past, the state was able to distribute considerably more local transportation funding than the $75 million Daniels is handing out this month, Bauer said.

The lease does not prevent maintenance and improvement of existing roads, as some lease opponents have charged, said Matt Pierce, communication director for the Indiana Toll Road. The lease merely prohibits construction of any comparable highway of 20 continuous miles or more within 10 miles of the toll road, Pierce said.