Governor Withdraws Support For Indiana Commerce Connector

Governor Makes Rare Saturday Appeal To House, Senate Leaders

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' no longer supports his own plan to build a new toll road connecting Interstate 69 to Interstate 65 because they had not garnered the public support he had hoped.

The Daniels administration announced Saturday that the governor contacted leadership in the Indiana House and Senate, as well as other key players in the highly debated plan, to let them know he withdrew his suggestion that action be taken on the Indiana Commerce Connector.

"It is clear to me that we are far from the degree of consensus that is necessary before the embarking on major public works projects of high local impact," he said in letters to House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Terri Austin, D-Anderson, and Sen. Thomas Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The unusual Saturday announcement from the governor's office signaled he was conceding defeat on his two toll road proposals in the face of opposition that he initially had acknowledged March 15. A series of public meetings since then on the proposed 75-mile Indiana Commerce Connector around part of Indianapolis showed the opposition remained as strong as ever.

"The overwhelming sentiment was opposition to this proposal or a complete and thorough study," Austin said Saturday. "Additional information was needed before it moved forward."

Even the portion of the Illiana Expressway that Daniels still wants considered might be relegated to a legislative study committee, she said.

Austin said the governor's retreat on the toll road proposals gives lawmakers "an opportunity to take a more in-depth look at mass transit in Indiana," such as commuter trains. She is sponsoring a bill that would require the Indiana Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of mass transit in six different regions of the state.

The GOP-led Indiana Senate had approved a bill to give Daniels the authority to seek private funding to build the toll roadway projects, but the legislation faced a rocky road to passage in the Democratically controlled House.

Wyss said many Republican and Democratic lawmakers saw Daniels' toll road proposals as a prudent way to build new roads while also raising money from private operators for other projects. But he said those lawmakers did not publicly support the proposals because they feared the political ramifications of taking an unpopular stand.

"I think it was weak political will on the part of some to stand up for good public policy and for the good of the state of Indiana as a whole," he said. "Those legislators knew the benefits of it but were unwilling to step forward and explain it to the public."

At a House hearing on mass transit that Austin helped organize last week, some lawmakers said privately that the meeting was only intended to divert attention away from Daniels' toll road proposals.

Two state representatives from northwest Indiana said earlier this month that residents of that area opposed the Illiana Expressway, which would stretch 50 miles from the Illinois state line to Interstate 94 in Porter County. A legislative forum sponsored by Citizens Against the Privatized Illiana Toll Road drew a crowd of about 1,000 people.

"The people of the affected areas have spoken clearly enough to persuade me that these ideas are, at best, premature," Daniels said in his letters Saturday.

"By contrast, an Illiana bypass from I-65 west seems to be broadly supported and can, I hope, be given the chance to move forward," the letters said.

Indiana Democratic Party Chair Dan Parker said in a statement that House Democrats had listened to the public's opposition and forced the governor to concede defeat on his proposals.

He said that last year, Daniels and House Republicans -- who then controlled the chamber -- successfully pushed the passage of legislation leasing the Indiana Toll Road to a private foreign consortium for $3.8 billion "despite an outpouring of concern and cries for caution."

"You can only push people so far before they begin to see right through you," Parker said. "Hoosiers have spoken, and Mitch Daniels knew House Democrats would listen to them. He had no choice but to take his unpopular proposals off the table."

Indiana House Speaker Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, thanked Austin for hosting a series of committee hearing on Daniels' Indiana Commerce Connector proposal.

"We said we would listen, and we have," Bauer said.

When Daniels announced the Commerce Connector proposal in November, he said the state could collect about $1 billion by allowing a private entity to pay to build and operate it as a toll road looping east and south of Indianapolis. That money could help the state pay for the I-69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville, he said at the time.

Daniels' press secretary, Jane Jankowski, said Saturday's announcement will not affect the I-69 project, construction of which is due to begin in fall 2008.

The state has $700 million in the bank from the Indiana Toll Road lease to pay for its share of I-69 construction from Evansville to the Crane area west of Bedford, she said, adding the Daniels administration will have to find new ways to come up with additional funding.

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