Back to the future with Major Moves

It was like a scene from an old-time movie. Last Thursday, supporters of Gov. Daniels’ Major Moves plan to privatize the state’s northwest toll road gathered in a conference room on the ninth floor of 1 N. Capital to witness the receipt of a series of phone calls. Picking up the phone hasn’t been so fraught with drama since Mr. Watson waited for that first call from Alexander Graham Bell.

These calls were from the state’s bankers. They confirmed that Indiana was now in possession of $3.8 billion from the consortia that will be running the toll road for the next 75 years.

It was fitting that, whether by accident or design, the closing of the lease deal happened to take place on the 50th birthday of our interstate highway system. On June 29, 1956, Dwight David Eisenhower was president, tail fins were the latest thing in automotive design and a gallon of regular gasoline cost 22 cents.

But the governor and his supporters weren’t looking backward last week. As far as they’re concerned, this lease deal is just the beginning of a festival of highway construction in Indiana. The money from this lease deal is being dedicated to a decade’s worth of road building and repair, most notably toward the creation of the I-69 extension between Evansville and Indianapolis — a highway that the governor also wants to privatize, because he knows there’s not enough public support for this road to raise the money in taxes to build it otherwise.

Daniels is convinced that building highways is a key to Indiana’s future and he’s set on doing it — with or without public support. That’s the beauty of privatization: It avoids the messy process of having to persuade people that an idea is good enough to justify higher taxes. Never mind that in this case those taxes will take the form of ever-increasing fees toll way drivers will pay to a private business for the privilege of driving on a leased road.

This issue of privatizing what have traditionally been considered public assets is a thorny one. Daniels admitted as much in a recent New York Times op-ed column, where he noted that public sentiment has run almost 2-1 against privatizing the toll road and that public animosity against the deal “was as genuinely grass-roots as it gets … As governor I should have done more than I did to walk Indiana through, in advance, both the business case and the realities of today’s global economic competition.”

He might also have brought a vision for the future of transportation in this state that did more than recall the road building gusto of the 1950s. With the cost of gasoline hovering around $3 and the country coming ’round to understanding the realities and perils of global warming, Daniels’ infatuation with highways looks increasingly like a ducktail combed with greasy kid stuff.

The swaggering enthusiasm that Daniels and his supporters have lavished on their toll road scheme recalls another time that Indiana came late to a transportation party. In the 1830s, the state authorized construction of a network of canals intended to make Indiana a national hub for commerce. This project was funded with $10 million in loans. But as Purdue University’s John Lauritz Larson has written, “fraud, ineptitude and an international financial panic” undermined the loan. Not only that, the canal project’s timing intersected with the coming of a new form of transport: railroads. Where, in 1840, the complete mileage of canals and railroads in America was nearly equal, by 1860 there were eight times more railroad miles than canals.

Some people say that Indiana’s been gun-shy about undertaking ambitious public works projects ever since the canal debacle. Daniels has traded on this idea — our so-called fear of change — as a way of dressing up his own retro tendencies and calling it innovative leadership.

But there’s nothing innovative about bonding our economy more tightly to a transportation model based on Big Oil. This, of course, is not to say our roads don’t need fixing, or that people are ever going to stop driving, or that we can’t use the jobs that massive construction projects bring. These considerations are as important as they are obvious — and they constitute but a fraction of what we should be talking about when we talk about the future of transportation in Indiana.

Putting aside questions concerning the wisdom of running a public resource “like a business” (see Enron), leasing the northwest toll way or, for that matter, the I-69 extension, might make a modicum of sense if the money generated by these deals were dedicated to creating a truly 21st century transportation system for Indiana, incorporating everything from regional bullet trains to bike lanes.

There is no sign that this is what’s happening. Instead, we’re getting an infusion of cash so that we can pour more concrete across what countryside we have left. We’re told this is a road to the future. The only trouble is we’ve been there before.


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