Gov. Mitch Daniels' plan to fund the I-69 extension through tolls could double the boondoggle's costs to between $3 billion and $4 billion. And the money to pay for it, much of which will go to private corporations, will come straight out of motorists' pockets through thinly a disguised scheme to tax them twice.
So concludes a report from a coalition of citizen groups called Caution — Slippery Road Ahead!: Toll roads and privatization, what could go wrong?
"Private toll roads have proven in many instances to be good for toll operator profits, bad for the taxpayers and the traveling public," concludes the report, issued Nov. 30, 2005, by Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads, the Hoosier Environmental Council, the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations, and Count Us!
Calling Daniels' plan "a radical departure" from traditional highway funding methods, the groups called for "meaningful legislative and citizen oversight" before the state commits to public/private toll roads in Indiana. Daniels and high-paid highway lobbyists will need a change in state law to privatize toll roads in Indiana, and they are "lobbying" legislators for support.
"The current proposal to build I-69 as a toll road is the thin edge of the wedge of tolling and privatization of our highway infrastructure," the citizens report says. "Many more such schemes are expected if the I-69 project goes forward as a toll road."
Shortly after taking office last January, the Republican governor, who claims to be a fiscal conservative, confirmed what I-69 opponents have charged for years — Indiana taxpayers simply cannot afford to build the first leg of the NAFTA highway from Evansville to Indianapolis. The long-term plan is for I-69 to be a trade corridor Mexico and Canada.
But Daniels wasted no time demonstrating that he is in fact beholden to the same special interests as were his Democratic predecessors in the governor's mansion — Evan Bayh, Frank O'Bannon, and Joe Kernan. In September he proclaimed I-69 would be "a toll road or no road" and began pushing a toll road.
At the same time, he proposed privatizing both I-69 and the Indiana Toll Road through the northern part of the state, leasing the public's roads to private corporations that would profit from their operations. In the case of I-69, the government would take private property and allow private corporations to profit off it.
"A public/private partnership would mean that the state would condemn private property using eminent domain but would then lease that property to a corporation which would help build and operate the road as a private money-making venture," the Slippery Road report says. "This is very different than having the state build and operate roads for the public good."
In pushing the toll road, Daniels also continues the Democrats' legacy of ignoring 15 years worth of studies that say the highway, especially a toll road, cannot be justified on economic grounds. According to Indiana Department of Transportation's (INDOT) Final Environmental Impact Statement on the I-69 extension:
"'Toll feasibility' requires that traffic levels not only pay ongoing operating and maintenance costs, but that they also provide revenues sufficient for construction debt service. Being 'toll feasible' requires higher traffic volumes than those which justify construction of a non-toll facility."
Also, the citizens' report says, making I-69 a toll road would place a hardship on commuters and reduce accessibility, which are among INDOT's core goals for the project.
In a section of their report titled "Privatization or Piratization?" the citizens' report says "the devil is in the details." And given that private corporations do not cavalierly risk their capital, the citizens argue those details need to be debated publicly and honestly.
"If toll revenues are less than expected will the state be required to subsidize the shortfall?" they ask. "What happens if the private developer defaults on the contract? Will the state be left holding a worthless, incomplete piece of a road that it could not afford to finish itself? Will contracts be renegotiated along the way to the benefit of the corporation?"
The report cites a July 2000 World Bank study that warns if traffic volumes are insufficient for a toll road, "various types of government support, such as grants or guarantees, are likely to be required."
Slippery Roads also cites examples of several toll roads that have failed in America in recent years, in heavily populated areas like Washington DC, Laredo, Texas, and Orange County, California. A July 7, 2002, article in the Los Angeles Times concluded "Political and financial problems have led many state leaders to conclude that California's nearly two-decade experiment with toll roads has failed, despite fervent hopes and vast investment."
And rather than create jobs, as Daniels and the highway lobby claim, privatizing I-69 could cost Hoosier jobs in, of all places, highway construction.
"Many private toll road consortia own construction companies that they prefer to hire for construction of the facility," the report says. "This could result in Indiana losing the construction jobs that the highway would require."
In the end, all of this means money flowing from taxpayer and motorists' pockets and into those of politicians, the highway lobby, and their corporate backers. And for those who drive State Road 37 to Indianapolis, it means double taxation.
"SR 37 was built and is paid for by gas taxes," the citizens say. "Turning it into a toll road means drivers who paid for it once will have to pay for it again. Users will continue to pay gas taxes as well as the tolls."
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.