Mitch Daniels came to Bloomington on Sept. 29 to tout his new I-69 toll road as an economic lifeline for the entire state. But implicit in his message was a chilling new reality for Bloomington citizens: rather than reaping the $3 billion boondoggle's alleged economic benefits, they will be paying out of pocket for it on a daily basis, for the rest of their lives.
When asked at a news conference if his plan would require Bloomington motorists to pay a toll on what is now Ind. 37 to, say, drive across town or commute to work in Indianapolis, the governor said almost certainly.
"Probably you're talking about the whole road," he said. " ... Well over 40 percent of the cost of the road happens from Bloomington north. So, it's not illogical that if you're trying to save tax dollars, and cover at least a fraction of the cost with user fees or tolling, that it would run the whole length."
While Daniels called himself a "hard-boiled, property rights conservative," he acknowledged that he would use eminent domain to take private property for I-69. And under his plan, he would then lease the land's economic value to a private corporation for private profit. The landowners whose property he takes would then have to pay that corporation a "user fee" to drive across their own land.
"As old as the republic is the notion that when there's a definite public purpose, like moving people and goods around on a road, eminent domain is appropriate," he said, as INDOT Commissioner Tom Sharp nodded in agreement.
Bloomington was the last stop on a Daniels and Sharp tour around the state promoting their recently announced 10-year transportation plan, through which Daniels envisions "more than doubling of the new construction on transportation" in Indiana over the next decade. I-69, he said, "is in some respects the single largest and most important" of the projects on the list.
At the same time, however, the governor acknowledged that I-69 opponents "have been right all along" in saying the state cannot afford I-69.
"The truth is we don't have half the resources, current revenue sources, to build the infrastructure Indiana needs," he said, referring to Frank O'Bannon administration transportation planning as a "con job."
But Daniels said his administration is looking to the "wave of the future" to close this economic gap: toll roads operated by private corporations. Specifically, he and Sharp say, the Indiana Toll Road (Interstate 80-90) across northern Indiana and I-69 will be part of this wave. Federal law prohibits the conversion of existing interstates into toll roads.
"This won't look like your grandfather's toll road, toll booths with somebody's brother-in-law sitting there collecting tolls, stopping every few miles," Daniels said. Instead, the entire thing will be electronic, with motorists given monitoring devices known as "transponders" and then paying per mile driven.
Daniels agreed with Sandra Tokarski from Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, who said such a scheme raises privacy concerns. But he said protective steps could be taken. "I don't think it's anything that couldn't be very well guarded against," he said, "as long as you were thoughtful enough to ask the question and imagine where the risks exactly might be."
Daniels put the price tag for his I-69 toll road at $2 billion, a figure that is affordable, he said, if the state can find "a suitable, private partner, to build it on a design-build basis."
"We're very explicit about this," he said. "I don't know that we would ever receive an offer to lease the northern toll road that we would want to recommend to our fellow citizens, but we'll never know if we don't ask." The same goes for I-69.
Sharp noted that 18 states allow such partnerships. "Really, what this allows you to do is to mix, if you will, some public funds and some private funds and have those work together to their maximum benefit," he said. "When you do one of these highways, the state still owns the land, the highway has to be built to the standards of the state and maintained to the standards of the state."
Daniels said he hopes to add Indiana to that list. "I will be submitting to the next Legislature a request for a law like 18 states now have that makes the kind of partnership possible," he said. "I'd be glad to work out the details with them."
Daniels graciously accepted thank yous from Tokarski and Monroe County Surveyor and Plan Commissioner Kevin Enright for his willingness to talk to citizens about I-69. But the day's events suggest he tried to avoid them.
The governor did not announce his 2 p.m. Bloomington stop to friendly media until a few hours beforehand, even though he had been in Evansville and Washington that morning. He didn't notify community media like the Alternative and WFHB Community Radio at all.
As a lone, sign-carrying Brian Garvey awaited the governor's arrival at One City Center, security personnel were overheard radioing the Daniels entourage that there were "more INDOT employees here than protesters."
Indeed, Daniels' hand-picked audience was a room full of friendly faces, including County Commissioner Herb Kilmer, paid INDOT consultants, and a bevy of INDOT employees.
A last-minute inquiry to Daniels Communication Director Brad Reiteke asking whether the INDOT workers were being paid with taxpayer dollars to attend the governor's talk was not returned by the Alternative's Sunday deadline.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.