Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels' first "creative solution" for funding I-69 has demonstrated that his running mate, Lt. Gov.-elect Becky Skillman, has a solid grasp on how state government works. Since he's new to the game, Daniels will, hopefully, be listening to what she has to say.
What Skillman, a Republican State Senator from Bedford, said at a legislators' forum in Bloomington last Jan. 25 was that legislators and taxpayers in the far-flung corners of Indiana will not pay for the $3 billion I-69 Boondoggle. "That's just the reality," she said matter-of-factly before a TV audience on WTIU. Agreeing with her that night were Democratic State Rep. Matt Pierce from Bloomington and Republican Eric Koch from Bedford.
The insight Skillman showed in Bloomington that evening was echoed last week by Northern Indiana legislators and newspaper editors from Gary to Fort Wayne after Daniels suggested the state could raise some Boondoggle money by selling the 157-mile Indiana Toll Way, a/k/a Interstate 80/90, that spans the northern edge of the state from Ohio to Illinois.
The idea drew a Skillman-like response from Democratic State Senator Erline Rogers from Gary, who told the Associated Press in a Jan. 2 story that the Northwest Indiana legislative delegation would cooperate with Daniels' plan only if it includes funding for local communities.
"I would hope that any attempt to provide money for the I-69 extension would also include the needs we have here," Rogers said. In other words, Northwest Indiana highway money should stay in Northwest Indiana.
Three days later, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette published an editorial titled "Don't sell the toll road," arguing: "The proposed privatization of northern Indiana's primary economic development tool should raise alarms from here to East Chicago and everywhere else in Indiana."
That same afternoon, Fort Wayne's other daily paper, the News-Sentinel, ran another AP story titled: "Daniels says he's not ready to sell Toll Road." In it, however, our incoming governor insisted that selling "assets" like buildings, vehicles and infrastructure is a legitimate tool for helping Indiana address its economic woes.
"Other states have also had very large gaps and have found creative ways to close them through asset sales, tolling or other revenue sources," Daniels said.
The toll road proposal was but one piece of lip service the new governor gave to I-69 last week, which seems to contradict his pledges to represent the best interests of all Hoosiers and change the way state government operates.
In announcing retired Alcoa executive Thomas A. Sharp as the next head of the Indiana Department of Transportation, Daniels told reporters that the I-69 extension will be a high priority for his administration.
And in an e-mail to The Bloomington Alternative regarding the Sharp appointment, Daniels suggested that politics, not fiscal and environmental responsibility, will continue to drive the I-69 agenda.
"Tom Sharp is a great talent who has no ambition other than to serve the public interest and bring reform to state government," the governor-elect wrote. "He comes to the INDOT job with no ties to anyone and no preconceptions except those commitments I made as a candidate. Those include, however, I-69."
Sounds like politics over the public interest, business as usual.
Still, given the predictable response from Northern Indiana to the toll road sale, Daniels' pre-inaugural posturing on I-69 could be read as a prelude to his ultimate acceptance of reality, that there is no money to build the Boondoggle, and there isn't likely to ever be.
It's hard to imagine any INDOT asset other than the 80-90 Toll Way whose sale could generate the billions it will take to build I-69. And at some point, Gov. Daniels will have to admit that a toll is nothing more than a tax by another name and that making I-69 a toll road will be seen for what it would be: a tax increase on the motoring public.
If anything can be asserted as fact about last year's election it is this: Hoosiers didn't elect Mitch Daniels to raise their taxes.
If Daniels does indeed believe that extending I-69 south from Indianapolis will economically benefit the entire state, and if he does intend to build it "faster and cheaper" as he's said on multiple occasions, there is only one realistic option the Common Sense Route, U.S. 41-I-70 from Evansville to Indianapolis via Terre Haute.
INDOT's own studies have shown 41-70 will cost about half of what the Boondoggle will. And as Libertarian candidate for governor Kenn Gividen maintained throughout the fall campaign, the state could build Common Sense I-69 and upgrade U.S. 31 from Indianapolis to South Bend for the same cost as the Boondoggle.
Common Sense is definitely cheaper.
U.S. 41 is already four-lane the entire way to Terre Haute. INDOT already has plans to add the additional lanes to I-70 from Terre Haute to Indianapolis that I-69 would require. And choosing Common Sense would almost certainly stave off expected legal challenges to the entire sordid affair that could set the cause of new-terrain I-69 back years.
Common Sense would definitely be faster.
Indeed, Sharp's appointment as the new highway chief could in fact be Daniels' first step on the path out of the I-69 quagmire. Alcoa, Sharp's former employer, operates a plant in Warrick County just outside Evansville. Sharp just might be the man to persuade the only people whose opinions on I-69 have mattered in the pre-Daniels era the Evansville power structure that they really only have two choices: Common Sense or nothing at all.
Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative. He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.