Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Indiana Toll Road rates to double under Cintra-Macquarie

Toll Road rates rise

Electronic passes get drivers shorter lines, no hikes till 2016


By Angela Mapes Turner
The Journal Gazette
Copyright 2008

ANGOLA – Drivers paying cash Tuesday on the Indiana Toll Road got something extra with their change and receipt – a brochure advising them to save up to 75 percent on tolls by using an electronic pass.

Savings sounded like a good idea to Jenny Krouse of Fort Wayne who already had two financial factors on her mind Tuesday morning as she headed with her daughter to Sandusky, Ohio: High gasoline prices and Indiana’s 1 percentage-point sales tax increase.

Higher tolls were the icing on the cake.

For the first time since 1985, tolls for cars and other two-axle vehicles rose at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, from $4.65 for the entire length of the road to $8. But car drivers using i-Zoom, an electronic toll-collection system, did not see the rate increase – and they won’t until 2016.

Vehicles with three axles or more, regardless of whether they use i-Zoom, also saw increased fees.

When Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration agreed to the 75-year lease of the Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium in 2006, a provision for increasing the toll rate was included. The consortium formed ITR Concession Co., paying the state $3.8 billion to collect all the highway’s toll revenue until the lease ends.

At the James Whitcomb Riley Travel Plaza just east of Interstate 69, the last travel plaza on the Toll Road before drivers reach Ohio, regular unleaded gasoline was $3.69 a gallon Tuesday morning. But like Krouse, many travelers were also focused on the toll increases.

Bothering Elkhart resident Paul Selman almost as much as increased tolls was the fact that the small tickets being printed out at toll booths didn’t include a toll rate schedule. Selman, headed east to see his granddaughter, had read in his local newspaper that prices were going up, but he wanted to know exactly what he’d pay.

“I’m very frustrated with that,” Selman said.

Including the prices on the tickets is just a small kink in a process that otherwise has gone smoothly, a representative of the Toll Road’s operator said Tuesday.

The toll rate schedule had to be removed to accommodate both an old system of card readers that used bar codes and a new one that uses magnetic strips, spokesman Matt Pierce said.

All but a few of the old card readers have been phased out, so when the bar code is removed, it will be replaced by the toll schedule – likely within two weeks, Pierce said.

The increased revenue from the toll increases will mainly be used for operating expenses, including health care for employees and diesel for snowplows and maintenance vehicles, Pierce said.

“We’re also looking at the needs of the shareholders,” he said.

Indiana’s Toll Road rates had been among the lowest in the nation. A trip about the length of the Indiana Toll Road on the Pennsylvania Turnpike costs a car about $11, according to a calculator on the road’s official Web site. A similar 159-mile trip on the Ohio Turnpike – from the Westgate plaza to the Strongsville/Cleveland exit, for instance – is $7, according to another calculator.

At a rest stop near Angola on Tuesday, Michigan truck drivers Jack Chapin, Gerrit Haaksma and Jack Hoffius took a break on their way to deliver vehicles to Indianapolis. He doesn’t like the idea of paying a toll in any case, but Haaksma said he hopes the money will be put into improving the Toll Road, which he called one of the worst he’s driven. Hoffius and Chapin agreed.

The truck drivers said they wouldn’t rule out taking an alternate route such as U.S. 20, which runs through the heart of Angola, if it seemed cheaper or more efficient.

That worries Angola Mayor Richard Hickman. Many in the city lobbied against toll increases when they were proposed in 2005, and Hickman said the traffic has not decreased in that time.

Hickman said his mother counted 21 trucks in 20 minutes Monday while looking out the window of Hickman’s home on U.S. 20 east of the city. Both the speed and the volume of traffic concern city officials, although police have increased some patrols and the Indiana Department of Transportation has begun monitoring truck traffic.

“We still have concerns, because the traffic has not gone down,” Hickman said.

But Steuben County Commissioner F. Mayo Sanders doesn’t believe the toll increases will cause more traffic on U.S. 20. He hopes the lower i-Zoom price rates – which come with a promise of lines three times shorter than cash lanes – will entice drivers to stick to the Toll Road.

© 2008 The Journal Gazette:

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