Sonny Bromley is glad he just gave up his 40-year career as a truck driver to work in a restaurant in this small town about 10 miles off the Indiana Toll Road.
He wouldn't want to pay the heavy increase in tolls that would come with Gov. Mitch Daniels' plan to lease 157-mile highway to a Spanish-Australian
conglomerate for 75 years at a price of $3.85 billion.
"They're going to almost triple the tolls for trucks in three years -- that's ridiculous," said Bromley, 61, as he rang up a customer at the Junction City Restaurant. "There's no way I'd pay $32 to drive that highway when I was haulin', and I know a lot of boys who have said this would just drive them to start takin' the back roads."
Bromley was not alone in his feelings about the Daniels plan. It was hard to find anyone Tuesday who lives or works near the toll road across Northern Indiana who had much good to say about the plan.
"No one up here wants this," Bromley said. "That toll road belongs to the state of Indiana, the people of Indiana. It's just not right."
Complaints about the governor's "Major Moves" plan, which would use the lease money for road projects across the state, fell into two main categories:
Truck drivers and commuters who use the Toll Road regularly said they don't want to pay the sharp jump in tolls projected over the next three years as private interests take over the road.
Northern Indiana residents also don't think enough of the $3.85 billion would be
used to fund road projects in their communities.
Rex Katanekwa fell into both groups.
He's a 42-year-old consultant who lives in South Bend and takes the Toll Road for business trips to Chicago at least twice a week.
"If this happens, I wouldn't drive on it anymore -- I'd take the train up or I'd drive out of the way on I-94," Katanekwa said. "A lot of people are going to take alternative routes. It's just not worth it."
Under the governor's proposal, which still must be approved by the legislature, the consortium would be allowed to raise tolls for cars and trucks that travel the entire stretch to $8 this year from $4.65. Tolls would stay at $8 until 2010.
Rates for most big rigs, meanwhile, would rise gradually from $14.55 to $32 in 2009. After that, tolls for both cars and trucks would be pegged to inflationary indexes.
Daniels' proposed lease agreement with Cintra of Madrid and Macquarie Infrastructure of Sydney would require 34 percent of the $3.85 billion to be used for road projects in Northern Indiana.
Katanekwa said that's not good enough. He wants to see that number closer to 75 percent.
"This road has been paid for by the people of Northern Indiana," he said. "We're the ones that should benefit from this."
Mark Eagan, president of the Chamber of Commerce in St. Joseph County, agrees.
"Northern Indiana's percentage should have room to increase," he said. "Those residents who pay into the toll road should get more than residents who don't."
In Hammond, Mayor Thomas McDermott called Major Moves unfair to Northern Indiana.
"To me," he said, "it seems as the though the northern third of the state will be paying for infrastructure projects for the entire state."
"All those tolls are going to do is chase everybody down onto smaller roads," said Charlie Horner, 56, a truck driver from Stockton, N.J., who stopped to get lunch at a rest stop in Lake Station.
"I know my company won't pay for the tolls; there's no money for it. These politicians got to quit thinking that everyone has such deep pockets."
Samantha Chandler isn't worried about the tolls. She's worried about her job.
For eight years, she's worked as a toll attendant at the Portage Toll Plaza, making $11.75 an hour. If the duo of Spanish and Australian firms takes control of the toll road, Chandler said she'd likely be out of a job.
"They told us that the new group would interview us, but the jobs would be part time with no benefits," said Chandler, 33. "The governor talks about all the construction jobs that are going to be created because of all the new roads, but what about my job?
"It's not fair."
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