Saturday, May 27, 2006

Farmer's Highway Lawsuit Derailed by Judge

Indiana, the Crossroads of America, has been in a transportation predicament for several years. The state doesn’t have enough money to fund dozens of important road projects that are stuck in limbo, but desperately needed.

One of the most needed of these projects is the extension of I-69 from Indianapolis to Evansville. Wrangling has been ongoing for two decades over the proposed route, environmental concerns, and how to pay for it.

But earlier this year Gov. Mitch Daniels came up with a plan and presented it to the Indiana General Assembly. His plan was to lease the Indiana Toll Road that cuts across northern Indiana and use that instant revenue stream to fund the other road projects in the state, including I-69.

After the obligatory legislative debate Hoosier lawmakers decided the plan was a good one, so they put their stamp of approval on it. The lease would be for a term of 75 years and would infuse almost $4 billion into the state’s economy immediately to be used for other road projects.

But in April a Greene County farmer, Steve Bonney and six others backed by the Citizen’s Action Coalition, filed a lawsuit in St. Joseph County claiming the lease deal violated several provisions of the state’s constitution.

Last week Judge Michael Scopelitis threw out most of the plaintiffs’ claims, falling just short of calling the lawsuit frivolous. He did leave open the possibility of future legal action on charging tolls on I-69 and on part of its route that has been highly contested. He said those questions had nothing to do with the lease agreement for the toll road.

Bonney, however, seemed unfazed by the judge’s reproach. He immediately threatened an appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court. He is faced with deadlines, however. He has 10 days to file an appeal and also to post a court-ordered $1.9 billion bond in order to continue the suit.

The lease, which is to become effective June 30, is vital to the transportation future of the state. Indiana has been dragging its feet for decades over building the I-69 extension. The project is part of a federal plan to encourage free trade among the United States, Canada, and Mexico. When finished I-69 would be a major north-south route running from border to border. Several states are well on their way to completing segments of the freeway running through those states.

But, apparently, Bonney doesn’t care much about the big picture. All that matters to him is that the proposed path for I-69 cuts through his farm. He knows that eminent domain laws are not on his side, so he and his allies decided to attack the funding.

If he is eventually successful, which seems doubtful, he will have forced the forfeiture of billions of dollars in highway projects across the state, put the brakes on an important freeway extension project, and seriously upset the timeline for completion of that project. And, in return for his efforts, he would get to keep his farm intact.

Somehow, it doesn’t seem like a fair trade-off for the other five million residents of this state who are waiting for roads in their sections of the state to be improved, or for the nation as a whole, who would benefit from increased trade and more efficient transportation of goods if I-69 is extended.

I don’t blame anyone for looking out for their own interests. But at some point, the interests of the people at large must become paramount. In almost any project there are trade-offs. The governmental units in charge of planning must balance the good and the bad. There must always be a cost-benefit analysis.

If the overall benefits for society outweigh the cost and inconvenience of a few individuals, then such projects must be given the thumbs-up. In the case of a few scattered farmers against all the road projects in the state that would be put on hold, including the Free-Trade Freeway, the cost-benefit ratio isn’t even close.

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