By Hannah Troyer
The travel plaza restrooms located along the Indiana Toll Road stink. Literally.
That’s according to Rep. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, who alerted state transportation officials about the problem – and found they weren’t surprised.
In fact, the state had already notified the company leasing the toll road that the travel plazas needed improvement. And in a letter back to the state last month, ITR Concession Co. says it’s on it and has hired additional cleaning staff to handle the restrooms.
Niezgodski, D-South Bend, recently used the toll road to travel to Cleveland, Ohio. He said he was so “repulsed” by the way the bathrooms stunk, he decided to write a letter to Chris Kiefer, chief of staff at the Indiana Department of Transportation.
“These aren’t issues that should be casually disregarded, because they impact how travelers view our state,” Niezgodski wrote. “Personally, I would like for visitors to the Crossroads of America to have better memories of Indiana than the pungent smell of urine.”
Kiefer agreed with Niezgodski and assured him steps are being taken to improve the bathroom quality in the short term. And in the long term, ITR is planning complete remodels of the travel plazas.
ITR is a consortium that in 2006 paid $3.8 billion to lease the toll road for 75 years. The company, which declared bankruptcy and is now looking to sell the lease, collects the tolls in exchange for maintaining the highway, which runs across Northern Indiana.
But ITR doesn’t actually maintain the toll road plazas. It contracts with private vendors to handle the work – agreements it inherited when it leased the road. In a letter to the state this summer, ITR officials said they believed the plazas are “generally in good working order” and that complaints are “exceptionally low.”
Still, the company said it had taken steps to deal with the restrooms by assuming responsibility for cleaning duties and instituting random weekly bathroom checks that include inspecting the cleanliness and state of each restroom.
The company said it will also form a partnership with a development team to fully develop the properties and “unlock the full value of the ITR Travel Plazas.”
The letters exchanged between state officials and ITR indicate issues about the plazas first came up a year ago. Then in June, the Indiana Finance Authority – which oversees the toll road lease – sent a letter to ITR indicating it had continued to receive complaints that the plazas were “extremely dirty and unsanitary, are not in good operating conditions, lack adequate signage and are not being property maintained.”
The state asked for an improvement plan. That didn’t come until Sept. 23.
Niezgodski is skeptical of the proposed plans for improvement and said the problems were predictable.
“I remain concerned of the way this mess may be indicative of the way that the ITR Concession Company LLC has managed the entire Toll Road,” Niezgodski said in a statement. “As we have seen, it isn’t going to cut it to tell the people of Indiana that they have nothing to worry about with the operation of the Indiana Toll Road during bankruptcy proceedings. Those sentiments have proven to carry an aroma not unlike what people can find visiting any plaza.”
Hannah Troyer is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.