For some, the possibility of tolls on Interstate 70 across Indiana is going over like a flat tire. But Republican lawmakers who control the legislature say they could help fund new driving lanes and only those who use the road would pay for them.
“I think it’s totally unfair,” said Judy Anderson, president of the Vigo County Board of Commissioners. “I don’t think we would be supportive at all.”
Pending legislation would let the governor place toll lanes on interstates and bridges, subject to federal approval.
Many Vigo County residents commute to jobs in Indianapolis and a large number of them already use U.S. 40 because of the condition of the interstate and ongoing construction, Anderson said.
“Are they going to finally finish the project and then turn around and make people pay to drive on it?” she asked. “That’s the discussion we need to have with the legislators.”
Higher tolls on Interstate 80 in northern Indiana may have shifted some traffic to Interstate 70 and imposing tolls on that highway could result in more traffic on U.S. 40, said Jeremy Weir, transportation planning director at West Central Indiana Economic Development District.
“That is definitely a concern that we would want to address,” Weir said. He noted local governments are now responsible for a stretch of the former alignment of U.S. 40 between the Illinois state line and Indiana 46.
“Our biggest concern is, if you put in a toll booth, how you control local traffic,” said Chuck Ennis, Terre Haute city engineer. “I think that’s going to be a problem all the way along the I-70 route because 40 is such a convenient parallel route. I can see big unintended consequences.
The Indiana House passed the bill last month, 61-36. Republicans Bob Heaton and Alan Morrison of Terre Haute voted for the legislation. Reps. Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute, and Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville, were opposed.
“We are in such a rush to do this, maybe because we have a super majority, but we may not after this,” Borders said. “Let’s slow this down and hold meetings in the state and get public input.”
But no one at the Statehouse has applied the brakes. The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee sent the measure, House Bill 1002, to the Senate floor last week by a vote of 13-0.
While the original House bill would have mandated tolls on Interstates 70 and 65, the Senate version gives the governor the option of imposing tolls, Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute noted.
“We’re saying it is up to the administration to decide what is best,” Ford said, adding that the Federal transportation program is also under review. “We get some feedback from Washington that it could be a national tolling program. We have it open ended so as not to handcuff the administration.”
Another state on I-70 with a Republican controlled legislature and a GOP governor may go in the opposite direction. An amendment inserted in a state budget bill in Missouri would ban tolls on interstate highways, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Wherever tolls are imposed, they drive up the cost of business, said Mike Morris, president of Morris Trucking in Terre Haute.
“I’m a believer in freeways,” he said. “Tax the fuel that we use to transport or to travel on those freeways.”
Morris Trucking’s 35 drivers rack up about 2.2 million miles per year, 600,000 of that in Indiana. In addition to taxes paid at the pump, the company pays 11 cents per gallon for fuel estimated to be used in Indiana, Morris said. He said he supports toll bridges because tolls are usually removed once bonds sold to finance construction are paid off.
“This is the only highway that goes through the middle of the state. If they take this one out, they would leave people without an option to travel from A to B without paying,” Janusz Plaszczyk, a truck driver from St. Louis said during a fuel stop in Terre Haute. While passengers car may have become more efficient, fuel consumption by big rigs as remained constant at about seven miles per gallon, he said.
Longstanding plans have called for additional lanes on I-70 across Indiana and current federal policy restricts the use of new tolls to new construction, Sen. Ford said.
“We’re a long way from tolling being a possibility,” he said. “Some business leaders support tolling. The amount of money we’re putting into infrastructure - $1 billion per year for 10 years - is going to send a strong signal that Indiana wants to invest in infrastructure. That’s where companies want to be.”
The legislation does not address toll rates. While recent discussions cited figures of 5 cents per mile for cars and 15 cents per mile for trucks, Borders said he’s heard numbers as high as 20 cents per mile.
Allowing toll roads is part of a transportation funding measure, House Bill 1002, that also increases taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, hikes registration fees and imposes a supplemental fee on electric vehicles. The bills calls for a feasibility study of tolls by an outside firm, with a report due to a state task force by November 1. Economic impact studies and public hearings would also be required before tolls could be implemented.
Lawmakers have included tolls in the mix because motor fuel tax revenues are expected to decline as fuel efficiency increases and electric cars become more popular.
“This is a resource that does not continue to diminish like the gas tax does,” said Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
An analysis by the Indiana Legislative Services Agency found the bill would bring in nearly $500 million annually in new revenue by 2021 without taking toll revenues into account. Revenues from new toll lanes “are currently indeterminable,” the analysis said.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb hasn’t indicated he’s in favor of an immediate increase in tolling, but he did say Friday it will likely be needed in the future.
Holcomb suggested having that debate in seven or eight years — a move that might leave any final decision up to his successor, should Holcomb secure another four-year term. At that time, “we’re going to have to make some choices,” he said.
“We’re going to have to ask ourselves, do we want to raise taxes? Or do we want to entertain tolling?”
Tribune-Star reporter Howard Greninger and the Associated Press contributed to this article.