Saturday, June 07, 2008

Another My Man Mitch Deal

Here in Indiana Our Man Mitch leased out the toll road to an Australian Company. While there are many ways to debate whether this was good or not the folks up in Northern Indiana are still pretty miffed about it. Now that it's re-election time for Our Man Mitch, the toll road lease company sent FREE toll road I-pass units to all the Indiana Legislators. And they said it was part of the contract. Hmmm well maybe it was put into the contract by Our Man Mitch but hey this is Our Man Mitch that suspended a $9.00 an hour state park worker for accepting a hot dog and a baseball cap from a contractor. Give me a is the story.

June 7, 2008

Legislators offered free ride

Most decline toll road firm's device for using 'I-Zoom' lanes at no cost

By Mary Beth Schneider

Only days after cash tolls nearly doubled on the Indiana Toll Road, the private company that manages the road had a money-saving offer for state lawmakers: a free ride.

Most legislators said no thanks.

In fact, a few said they threw out the free transponder that would allow them to use the "i-Zoom" lanes without paying any tolls on the 157-mile highway across Northern Indiana.

"I'm not going to drive along paying no tolls while other people are driving along paying more," said Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. "There's no way it could pass the mirror test."

Julia Vaughn, policy director for the citizens lobbying group Common Cause/Indiana, agreed.

"It's just stupid from a political perspective to accept this," she said.

Pelath was one of the 38 Northern Indiana legislators who were sent the free transponders by the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co. The firm manages the Toll Road for the Australian-Spanish consortium that won a 75-year lease in 2006 from the state for $3.8 billion.

Matt Pierce, director of communication and government relations for the Toll Road, said the firm sent letters offering the transponders to the rest of the state's lawmakers. The letter was dated April 18, a little more than two weeks after the tolls on the road nearly doubled.

Pierce refused to say whether any of those legislators whose districts do not include the Toll Road accepted the offer, and refused to divulge the names of any lawmaker who was sent the transponder.

Legislators, Pierce said, get many questions about the Toll Road and often have to travel it while going about their duties. The hope, he said, is that lawmakers will use the electronic tolling system and tell constituents how much easier it is than having to hand change to a toll booth operator.

"We want them to be champions for us," Pierce said.

The toll for passenger vehicles on the road from the Ohio border to the Illinois border increased April 1 to $8 from $4.65.

The lease that sets out such toll increases also freezes tolls at $4.65 for 10 years for motorists who obtain transponders for $50, which includes a $10 deposit for the transponder and $40 in prepaid tolls. The deposit is refundable if the transponder is returned in good condition.

Lawmakers are supposed to use the perk when they are on official business, Pierce said -- though the letter lawmakers received doesn't specify that.

Pierce said the firm believed the Toll Road lease required free passage for legislators. It includes a section stating that no tolls would be charged to vehicles used in firefighting or law enforcement; ambulances; vehicles with diplomatic plates; or vehicles owned or operated by the state "or any department or agency thereof."

Most lawmakers said they had never heard of such a perk, though a couple said they believed that had been done in the past. Still, the two dozen lawmakers contacted said they either pay their tolls -- or, like House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, avoid the road out of continuing anger over the lease, a deal sought by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The House approved the lease 51-48 in March 2006, and the Senate followed suit that same month by a vote of 31-19.

With the Toll Road deal still a hot political issue, particularly in Northern Indiana, where many motorists opposed the lease, several legislators said they shouldn't be treated differently from their constituents.

"I can't imagine anyone wanting to use that," Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, said of the free transponder. "With gas prices at $4 and the lack of jobs -- and all of a sudden you've got legislators driving for free?"

Besides, he said, if the legislature were to vote again on any aspect of the Toll Road, he didn't want questions raised about whether he was influenced by not having to pay tolls like other folks.

"I don't even know what they were thinking," Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Lakeville, said of the Toll Road's offer. "I was so taken aback. I sent it back and said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' "

Other lawmakers said they sent their transponders back, too. A couple said they accepted them -- but only after telling the Toll Road they wanted to be charged the same terms as other motorists.

A few of the lawmakers, though, said they either had accepted or expected to accept the offer.

Rep. Dick Dodge, R-Pleasant Lake, said he had not used the "i-Zoom" yet but planned to. Asked if he had any qualms about taking a free ride while his constituents paid, he said: "I don't think so. No."

It just isn't that big a deal, he said.

Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, also said he planned to activate his device. Although he initially thought there would be a charge, he said he might still use it. But, he added, he seldom uses the Toll Road except to go to Illinois -- and under the terms of the Toll Road's offer to legislators, they still must pay normal tolls in other states.

Sen. Marvin D. Riegsecker, R-Goshen, said he had planned to use his transponder until a reporter asked what his constituents would think.

"Hmmm. Yeah, if you pose the question that way, I guess I'd have concerns," Riegsecker said. He said he might reconsider.

Vaughn thinks any lawmaker taking the deal should reconsider, too.

"The Toll Road is still an extremely hot topic up in the north," she said.

And, Vaughn said, the tolls are becoming steep.

Vaughn, who does not have an "i-Zoom," said she drove the Toll Road recently on a trip to Chicago and "was really struck" at the cost. She took a different route back to Indianapolis to avoid the Toll Road.

"Kudos to those legislators who recognize how inappropriate it would be to accept this gift," she said.


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