INDIANAPOLIS - Responding to a proposal by two Democratic state lawmakers to make Interstate 69 a public toll road from Evansville to Indianapolis, Gov. Mitch Daniels said he would listen to the idea, but suggested the proposal was "just another political stunt."
State Reps. David Crooks, D-Washington, and Trent Van Haaften, D-Mount Vernon, said their proposal to change portions of last spring's Major Moves law would prevent delays in construction of the I-69 extension through Southwestern Indiana.
They want to repeal two of the law's most controversial provisions: one that didn't allow tolls between Martinsville, Ind., and Indianapolis, and another that required the Legislature to give its approval before the interstate's path could enter suburban Marion County.
Both items had been added to secure the votes of Indianapolis-area legislators, Crooks and Van Haaften said.
Speaking Friday in Washington, Ind., near where the interstate is to be located, Crooks and Van Haaften said they would introduce a bill to remove those two hurdles, so that if I-69 is a toll road, it will be a toll road over its entire 142-mile length from Evansville to Indianapolis.
Exempting Indianapolis-area drivers from tolls wouldn't be fair, they said.
The $2 billion interstate project is being funded partly through proceeds from the $3.85 billion lease of northern Indiana's toll road, authorized under the Major Moves law that Daniels advocated. It passed after a bitter fight in the Legislature; no Democrats in the Indiana House voted for it.
Asked about the proposal Friday during an appearance in Indianapolis, Daniels expressed skepticism that the same House Democrats would try to clear obstacles to building I-69.
"We'll give it a fair look," Daniels said.
"But first of all, the only reason there's any money for I-69 is because of the measure (Major Moves) that they did everything they could to stop. They were against tolls when I said I thought some might be necessary to finish the road. Now they seem to have a different point of view. I hope this is not in a long pattern of politicians posturing while a road we need is delayed and delayed."
Saying that I-69 will almost certainly be a tollway, the two Democrats urged the governor not to lease it to a private entity as the Indiana Toll Road was, but instead to keep the interstate state-operated, funded partly through a bond issue.
When the costs of construction are paid off in 30 to 40 years, Crooks said, the tollway could be converted to a freeway.
Daniels countered that a similar bonding arrangement decades ago on the Indiana Toll Road never resulted in phasing out tolls there; and that I-69 could not be built without the Major Moves lease payments.
"He wants to go borrow money. That's a big government position, it's the voice of the past and a barrier," Daniels said of Crooks' proposal. "If that's his answer, then it's a very backwards one."
Crooks stressed that he and Van Haaften were sincere in their proposal to introduce legislation in 2007, and that it was not an election-year ploy.
"I don't know why (Daniels) wants to continue to show state government can't take care of itself," Crooks said. "He makes it sound like business can do everything better. I don't accept that on certain things, especially the operation and construction of our highways."
The 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium generated $3.85 billion in lease payments, of which $700 million will be used to fund I-69 construction. That portion alone will pay for the highway from Evansville to the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center, the governor said.
"Up to this point, they haven't been very helpful in getting a real result," Daniels said of the House Democrats.
"The history of I-69 has been one political stunt after another, and no concrete. We're all about building the road, and I hope this is not just another political stunt."