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The Journal Gazette

  • Sam Householder | Special to The Journal Gazette Cars enter and leave the Indiana Toll Road at the Elkhart toll plaza. The General Assembly is considering more tollways.

Sunday, January 15, 2017 6:16 pm

More tollways option for funding

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – If lawmakers approve a House Republican plan for long-term road funding, it could mean more than paying at the pump.

It includes language exploring tolling options, including applying for a federal waiver to place tolls on interstate highways.

More importantly, it would not require any future vote on tollways by legislators once a specific tolling plan is formed. Instead, it would leave it up to the discretion of the current or future governors.

"It’s a pretty big deal. The merits of tolling are not being debated at this point," said Justin Stevens, state director for Americans for Prosperity. "It opens up Pandora’s box."

The tolling language is a provision of House Bill 1002 that is so far flying under the radar as more focus has been put on an immediate 10-cent increase in the state gas tax.

But Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said when the state hits 2021 and beyond the revenue from the gas tax is expected to fall off.

"We have to fill that gap, and tolling is a way," he said.

Soliday said people used to carry rolls of dimes to go to Chicago, but tolling is almost all electronic now. And importantly, he said, it’s a way to get money for roads from the 25 percent of out-of-state drivers who might not stop and get gas.

But it also would affect the 75 percent of drivers who are Hoosiers and could be paying both at the pump and the toll booth.

The tolling options are varied:

• The first is simply tolling the interstates that exist now. This would require federal approval and neither Gov. Eric Holcomb nor Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, prefer this route.

• Adding more lanes and replacing bridges on interstates and then tolling the entire roadway. This would take years to build and tolling would come after construction as a way to pay off financing perhaps.

• Indiana could add truck-only toll lanes.

The talk has generally focused on interstates 65 and 70 where congestion is more of a concern and more capacity is needed. Interstate 69 has not been included in the conversation so far.

Soliday said estimates show the state could reap $350 million a year by having three to four lanes on I-65 and I-70 from state border to state border.

Under the bill, the Indiana Department of Transportation must submit a request to the Federal Highway Administration for a waiver to toll highway lanes.

INDOT also must hire a consultant to conduct a feasibility study on tolling, including tolling rates, vehicle counts and traffic diversion. That last point is a major concern if highway drivers switch use local roads.

Gary Langston, president of the Indiana Motor Truck Association, said the group would be open to a discussion on tolling for new capacity but adding tolls for existing infrastructure is a non-starter.

He said there has been a lot of talk about truck-only lanes but not much progress. On one hand, it makes sense to build one lane to handle heavier traffic, enabling states to save money reducing standards on other lanes.

Langston said his members continue to support using the fuel tax. He noted the administrative cost is almost zero compared with even modern-day tolling technology. He said the tax structure – with a 1 percent administrative cost – is already there and nothing would have to change. Administrative costs for tolling would be 10 percent to 12 percent, even with fewer toll booths and more electronic passes.

"We have to do everything we can to be able to move freely and move commerce," he said. "Congestion is a major issue for us. It’s really expensive to be sitting and not able to move."

Federal law has a general prohibition on tolling highways except for a few programs.

First is a tolling program that allows it on new highways and new lanes added to existing highways, and on the reconstruction or replacement of bridges, tunnels and existing toll facilities.

The second is the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, which allows up to three existing interstate facilities (highway, bridge or tunnel) to be tolled to fund needed reconstruction or rehabilitation on interstate corridors that could not otherwise be adequately maintained or functionally improved without the collection of tolls.

This is the waiver that North Carolina, Missouri and Virginia have. The Missouri waiver goes back to 2005 and North Carolina joined in 2012.

But Clark Barrineau, of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, said there has been so much outcry and opposition in the states that the states never moved forward.

Congress recently put a cap on the amount of time the waiver can be held – meaning the three are up for grabs if Indiana and other states want to apply.

"We already paid for these roads so it’s double taxation," Barrineau said, saying tolls are inefficient and have a high level of waste in the system.

"They say this is a huge pressing problem, but the answer is something that won’t even start for five or six years," he said.

nkelly@jg.net