Why Would a Tollroad Operator Offer Lawmakers Free Travel?

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Sun, 06/08/2008 - 10:39am.

This makes absolutely no sense!  The lawmakers are the ones who can afford to pay the tolls not the hard working folks and taxpayers busting their asses to pay the lawmakers and pay for their free rides too! ~ SadInAmerica

Indianapolis - The private operator of the Indiana Toll Road has sent devices to numerous lawmakers in Indiana giving them a free ride on the highway, and all legislators can get the same deal if they choose.

But several lawmakers who have received the so-called "non-revenue" I-Zoom transponders are not using them, saying it is only fair that they pay the same amount as other motorists.

"When I got it I was in a state of disbelief," said Rep. Scott Pelath (D-Michigan City). "I can't describe it as anything other than a perk. Mine is in the possession of solid waste authorities."

At least one lawmaker, Republican Rep. Dick Dodge of Pleasant Lake, said he would probably use his.

Matt Pierce, a spokesman for the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co., said the company sent the devices to 38 lawmakers in northern Indiana whose districts include or are near the 157-mile tollway that stretches across the top of the state from Illinois to Ohio. Letters also were sent to all other lawmakers saying they could get them if they wanted.

"As public officials who are often required to utilize the toll road in performing your official duties, we wanted to continue the privilege that has historically been extended to you and offer you each a non-revenue I-Zoom transponder, to be used free of charge on two-axle vehicles," the letter to northern Indiana lawmakers says.

Toll rates recently went up for all motorists who pay cash to drive on the tollway. The toll for the full length of the highway was raised from $4.65 to $8 for car drivers paying cash.

But those driving two-axle vehicles with a regular I-Zoom cannot have their rates raised until 2016. Motorists with I-Zoom transponders can go through a separate lane at tolling sites and have their payments automatically deducted from an account set up through the company.

Pierce said the policy allowing lawmakers to travel the road free stems from the contract the state signed in 2006 that leased the tollway to the private company for 75 years in exchange for an upfront payment of $3.8 billion. In turn, the company operates and maintains the highway and gets the toll money.

Pierce pointed to a provision in the contract that says the company shall not have the right to collect tolls from vehicles used for firefighting or law enforcement, those with diplomatic plates, ambulances or "vehicles owned or operated by the state or any department or agency thereof."

He said it was "determined internally" that the provision meant any and all vehicles that were doing business on behalf of the state, including contractors and all state employees using the road for official state business.

He said the no-charge I-Zooms were first distributed to toll road workers and police who patrol the highway, then to state agencies whose employees travel the tollway often on state business, and most recently to lawmakers.

He said if lawmakers call to activate the transponders, a customer service representative tells them they can only be used if they are traveling on official state business. But he said it is up to those who receive them to police themselves on their use.

If lawmakers are not on official business, they can remove the transponder and place it in a special bag so its signal does not register.

Pierce said one of the main reasons legislators should get the no-charge I-Zooms was to make it easier for them to travel the tollway, observe its condition and operation, and answer questions from constituents about the highway. Those with the special I-Zooms will still be charged normal fees in other states on the so-called E-ZPass system, such as Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Pierce said when the state operated the tollway, legislators were allowed to explain to a tollbooth operator that they were on official state business and drive on for free. He said some lawmakers may not have been aware of that policy.

Pelath said he had never heard of such a thing. He was among all House Democrats who voted against the legislation in 2006 that authorized Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels to strike the toll lease deal. Republicans controlled the chamber then, but Democrats have a majority now.

House Speaker Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said that giving no-charge I-Zooms to lawmakers was inappropriate.

"The appearance is not good," Bauer said. "I guarantee that (policy) was never deliberated on the floor, but there was a lot that was never deliberated."

Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Meeks, (R-LaGrange), said he could not remember if he called to activate his transponder, but even if he did, said he probably wouldn't use it. Meeks played a major role in getting the tollway lease legislation passed, even though it angered many of his constituents who use the tollway.

"They're already disgruntled up there, I don't need to agitate them any further" by using the transponder, he said.

Dodge, the Republican representative from Pleasant Lake, said he doesn't use the tollway often, but had activated his no-charge I-Zoom, put it in his car, and would probably use it when he does travel the highway.

When asked if that would upset constituents, he said, "Probably. I mean it's very possible, but I don't know. I doesn't seem to me like it's a big deal."

AP - June 7, 2008 - posted at http://www.roguegovernment.com/news.php?id=9818

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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Sun, 06/08/2008 - 10:39am.