We travel the tollways*

By RiShawn Biddle

Expresso • January 23, 2006

The Daniels Administration brought out the entire arsenal last week to push for the passage of the Major Moves program, including a law allowing for the 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a private firm. Besides bringing Reason Foundation cofounder Robert Poole -- and an advisor to the administration on toll road privatization -- to town just to dazzle legislators, they also rounded up endorsements from mayors, many of whose cities are alongside the Toll Road.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma noted that the real key to sealing the deal would be the good old bottom line: Whether a long-term lease would bring in more than $2 billion in proceeds. With the announcement this morning of the $3.8 billion bid by Macquarie-Cintra joint venture -- whose long-term lease of the connecting Chicago Skyway helped foster the Daniels plan -- and the salting of some $1.4 billion of that to the seven counties in which the road occupies, it will be difficult to oppose that part.

But while Gov. Daniels may be right in noting that "we're not going to tear up a $4 billion check," the passage of Major Moves in its entirety isn't exactly assured. Even if the legislature enacts the toll roads section of the legislation, there is still the opposition using tolls to fund construction of I-69's Indianapolis-to-Evansville (a.k.a. new-terrain) corridor. The fact that there may not be enough traffic on the Bloomington-to-Evansville portion to fund the tolls makes the plan a little sketchy still.

UPDATE: The Star Editorial Board gives its take on the lease deal. Meanwhile the Northwest Indiana Times' Sylvia Smith notes that such deals have pitfalls. The problem with her piece is that it doesn't list a lot of private deals that actually failed, but such "public-private" partnerships as the Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia (built as a joint venture between that state's DOT and a "63-20" corporation), which have always proven to be faulty. It also lists the 91 Express Lanes project in Orange County, Calif., which was acquired by the transportation authority there seven years after it was completed, not because it lost money, but because the county wanted to get out a clause barring the county -- and the California state government -- from competing with the tollway by expanding the Riverside Freeway.

* With apologies to jazz impresario Sun Ra.