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Caught in budget tug of war

A congressional proposal concerning highway funding targets Indiana – and could well pose an interesting dilemma for members of Congress concerned about fairness.

The proposal would change the formula for distributing highway money by excluding privately operated highways.

The 157-mile Indiana Toll Road is by far the largest such highway, and Indiana would lose an unspecified amount of money if the proposal is successful.

The plan is most likely designed to send a message discouraging other states from privatizing roads. Gov. Mitch Daniels certainly doesn’t like it, saying the proposal would reduce funding for Indiana “for the sin of addressing the infrastructure crisis.”

But the proposal is based on a sound premise: Because the Toll Road’s operators finance road repairs and construction, why should the federal government include it when distributing public tax money for public roads?

On the other hand, the Toll Road directly affects other highways that handle traffic to and from it. And traffic on nearby highways such as U.S. 20 may well increase as tolls become more expensive and drivers seek alternatives.

With Republicans controlling the House and Democrats running the Senate, the proposal could well end up becoming a bargaining chip in highway funding legislation.

New revenue streams

When Indiana lawmakers greatly restricted how much cities, counties and other units of government can raise through taxes, one of their intentions was to limit or cut spending on the local government level. And countless local governments have done just that – and still found themselves short.

So, not surprisingly, some are becoming creative in how they raise money.

In Johnson County, just south of Indianapolis and including the city of Franklin, officials are considering tacking on a $20 fee when the sheriff’s department has to call a tow truck to pick up a vehicle that was in a crash, abandoned or seized.

It isn’t often the county’s dive team has to retrieve a vehicle from a pond or lake, but it may cost the vehicle’s owner $100 in the future. Several county departments – including parks, planning and animal control – are looking at higher fees.

So much for the idea of starving the government by slowing the cash flow.

Keeping its loans local

I&M needs to borrow a sizeable chunk of money, and the company’s plan to borrow it from local banks ensures local businesses and residents will benefit from the deal.

I&M announced Thursday it would borrow the $110 million needed for capital improvements from a group of local banks. The typical procedure with these types of loans is for I&M’s parent company, American Electric Power, to go to a large bank in New York for financing.

Instead the company is going to borrow the money from several local and regional banks. PNC Financial Services and Fifth Third Bancorp will act as the agents for the deal, coordinating with the other participating banks. Some of those are:

•1st Source Corporation

•Lake City Bank

•Old National Bancorp

•Salin Bancshares, Inc.

•STAR Financial Group, Inc.

“There are very few things that are such a win-win,” said Paul Chodak, I&M’s president and chief operating officer. “But this is definitely one of them.”

Bus crackdown

Three Indiana-based carriers were among the 26 bus companies the U.S. Department of Transportation shut down, but it wasn’t clear whether any of their buses actually served the state.

Most of the bus companies picked up passengers in New York’s Chinatown and went to various places along the East Coast, including Boston, Washington, D.C., and Florida. One company, Apex Bus, charged $30 for a round trip from Manhattan to Norfolk, Va.; Greyhound charges about four times that much. All 26 companies were under the umbrella of three networks that federal regulators called “unscrupulous” for disregarding federal safety rules. When caught, the companies often changed names and kept operating.

The government crackdown began after a Chinatown bus that wasn’t operated by one of the 26 targeted bus lines crashed in the Bronx, killing 15 people. Two days later, a Super Luxury Tours bus crashed in New Jersey, killing the driver and a passenger.

Super Luxury was one of 10 companies affiliated with Philadelphia-based New Century Travel that the government closed. Six of the 10 were based in Pennsylvania, one in New York and the remaining three in Indiana.

Red Eagle Tours has a Mishawaka address and had been in business about 10 months, but did not have a telephone listing or website, the South Bend Tribune reported. The other two, Eagle Bus Inc. and Sammy’s Tours Inc., had Indianapolis addresses.