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April 10, 2013

Indiana Senate budget breathes new life into proposed toll road

Henderson continues to promote idea

ANDERSON, Ind. — Don Henderson has never stopped working behind the scenes on the Indiana Commerce Connector, a toll road proposed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2006, but dropped a year later amid scathing public criticism.

During last year’s governor’s election, he pitched the road to both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat John Gregg and Republican Mike Pence.

“It’s a case where, in my mind, for our area, the Commerce Connecter has tremendous potential,” to ease traffic congestion, and foster economic development, said the longtime Pendleton Town Council president.

The 75-mile toll road was to begin at Interstate 69 near Pendleton, and run south to Shelbyville, east to Martinsville, and connect with Interstate 70 near Mooresville. It carried a $1.5 billion price tag.

The Indiana Senate Tuesday breathed new life into the project with passage of its proposed $30 billion budget — sort of.

Under the Senate’s “Major Moves 2020” fund, $200 million would be set aside each year that could be tapped for major highway projects in the future.

Senate Appropriates Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, wants the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to set priorities about how to spend the money and look at the costs of:

◆ Adding lanes to Interstates 70 and 65.

◆ Completing the 142-mile extension of I-69.

◆ Building the Commerce Connector.

“Those are four projects we should look at, and there may be more,” Kenley said.

Rep. Teri Austin who, as chairwoman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee held field hearings on the toll road five years ago, said there was a lot of concern about the project, which is why it was dropped.

But the Anderson Democrat declined to speak about the toll road’s possible resurrection on Wednesday until she learns more about it.

“I don’t want to shoot from the hip on this one,” Austin said.

Kenley’s counterpart in the House of Representatives agrees the concept warrants study, but he also made no specific commitment to a toll road. And a program like “Major Moves 2020” is not contained in the House budget proposal.

“I think if we look at the growth of any city, especially a capital city (and) economic engine like Indianapolis and its surrounding areas, we have to look at an outer loop, we have to think about it,” said Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Henderson agrees, and thinks it isn’t a matter of if the highway will be built, but when.

State transportation planners, meanwhile, are waiting for final budget approval before taking any action, although they weren’t caught off guard by renewed interest in the toll road because Kenley raised it early in the legislative session, department spokesman Will Wingfield said.

“We have not been studying that specifically since the idea was no longer moving forward,” Wingfield added.

Differences in the House and Senate budget proposals will be worked out in conference committee.

Henderson said he hopes the Legislature will give additional serious study to the Commerce Connector.

“Access to an interstate system certainly does not guarantee you will have commerce,” Henderson said. “But I can guarantee if you don’t have interstate access you won’t have commerce.”

CNHI statehouse reporter Maureen Hayden contributed to this story.

Find Stu Hirsch on Facebook and @StuHirsch on Twitter, or call 640-4861.

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