News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 31, 2006

Pete Chalos: Major Moves plan could be major disaster for Indiana

By Pete Chalos

The governor is at it again. First, he closed down license branches in rural areas, forcing many Indiana citizens to take a day off from work and drive long distances in order to get anything done concerning their license or picture identification (which he made a requirement for voter registration). Then he established an Inspector General to act as his own personal prosecutor (along with a staff of lawyers in every Indiana county). Then he crammed his plan for daylight-saving time down our throats.

This guy seems to think we elected him to the legislative and judicial branches as well as the executive branch. Perhaps he thinks we elected him dictator. He certainly seems to act that way.

This time, it’s the Major Moves Plan on the agenda. Up until now, the state legislature has always handled the placing of toll roads and set the fees. That’s not good enough for My Monarch Mitch. The governor wants to take control of our highways from the legislature and hand it over to foreign companies operating under his supervision.

The governor’s Major Moves Plan grants the governor himself extensive power to enter into Public Private Partnerships (P3) with foreign companies. The stated purpose of the bill (HB 1008) is to allow the governor to lease East/West Indiana toll roads to a foreign company, including all of the motels, gas stations and rest stations along the toll roads (which would no longer be subject to property taxes), but the bill also applies to projects like I-69 (though not directly specified in the bill), all intermodel facilities, airports, ports (Lake Michigan and Ohio River), bridges and other transportation facilities or infrastructure.

Basically, the governor could implement a P3 when it comes to any project related to transportation that involves any combination of the following: planning, acquisition, construction, improvement, extension, operation, maintenance and financing of projects.

After a review of the State Budget Committee, the governor’s approval is all that would be required for a P3 contract. If he so desired, the governor could make an agreement to allow a single contractor (a hypothetical example being KBR of Halliburton) to handle all construction, improvement, operation, extension and maintenance of all Indiana highways. Another possibility, almost all of Indiana’s highways could be turned into toll roads as a result of this bill.

This bill also allows for the Indiana Finance Authority (IFA), part of the executive branch under the governor’s authority, to establish user fees and tolls, to establish the criteria for adjusting maximum rates, and to adopt emergency rules concerning user fees. Trust Funds would be established that would not be subject to transfer into the General Fund or other state funds. However, the IFA will have wide latitude to fund any project related to transportation.

The foreign company itself will not be able to raise toll fees for 10 years. After 10 years, they can raise them 2 percent a year or an increase equal to the CPI or GDP. No official cap is set for how high the rates can be increased.

The $2 billion deal for the lease of the toll roads would provide some much-needed funding for highway construction in Indiana. The list of projects that could potentially benefit from the incoming funds includes I-69, the Hoosier Heartland project, two new bridges over the Ohio River, the upgrading of U.S. 31 from South Bend to Indianapolis, and modernizing the Indiana toll road corridor. No mention of the Indiana 641 project in Terre Haute has been made in the bill.

However, there are many drawbacks to the deal that HB 1008 proposes. For example, the foreign company’s lease will run for 75 years. The leasing of the toll road will bring in $2 billion for highway construction which the state of Indiana will spend within five years. Where will money for highway improvements come from during the following 70 years when Indiana doesn’t take in any tolls or property taxes?

Also, there is the possibility that the foreign company could allow the roads to deteriorate rather than spend its profits on upkeep and then declare bankruptcy, leaving Indiana’s citizens with billions of dollars in repair bills.

Another drawback, the state can make no improvements to roads within 10 miles of the toll roads due to the no-compete clause. This includes U.S. 20, U.S. 6 and Indiana 120. All traffic will eventually be forced to travel on the toll roads regardless of the price.

The Indiana Laborers District Council recently issued a statement concerning the Major Moves project. Their concern is that the private company in charge of the construction, operation and maintenance of the toll roads will be using low-wage migrant workers from the president’s “guest worker program” to do all the labor. In effect, the “47,000 jobs for every billion dollars spent on road work” the governor promised would be going to foreign labor hired by foreign investors.

Keep your eyes open, Indiana. This governor is making deals that don’t seem to benefit Hoosier drivers, labor or taxpayers. Instead, he seems to be on a mission to grab as much power as he can. Ask yourself why he would need so much more power over the other branches of Indiana government than the governors who came before him. What is he trying to get done? What are his real goals? Is he running for president or president of Halliburton?

One thing is for sure, his Major Moves Plan leaves western Indiana out of the loop for the next 75 years. No improvements are scheduled for U.S. 41 and he doesn’t even mention the Indiana 641 bypass. I suggest that representatives of Vigo County, Sullivan County, Clay County, and Knox County are sent as a delegation to the governor’s office insisting that he include U.S. 41 and the 641 bypass in the bill if he expects our support on any level. It’s time to go to bat for the people of western Indiana.

Pete Chalos, a longtme teacher, coach and public servant in Vigo County, was mayor of Terre Haute for 16 years. Send e-mail to pchalos@netscape.com.