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Traffic travels along the Borman Expressway

Traffic travels along the Borman Expressway west of Interstate 65 in Gary.

The Indiana Department of Transportation has chosen engineering and consulting firm HNTB as its preferred candidate to create a strategic plan for tolling Indiana's free interstate highways.

The company and state will enter contract negotiations, which typically take two or three weeks, an INDOT spokesman said.

"Overall, our approach will enable INDOT to begin toll collections in 2021," HNTB stated in a letter of interest detailing its proposal.

According to the proposal, HNTB and 10 subconsultants will "define the how, why, when and where of tolling," perform traffic analyses and other work to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, and advise INDOT on technical and managerial issues involved in beginning tolling operations.

The state is considering five interstate corridors for tolling: I-94 from Illinois to Michigan; I-65 from I-90 south to I-465 and then south from I-465 to the Ohio River; and I-70 from the Illinois state line to I-465, then from I-465 to the Ohio state line. It is also considering tolling on interstates in Indianapolis, though not on I-465 itself.

A preliminary study by the engineering firm HDR suggested per-mile toll rates for most interstates, including Northwest Indiana's, of 4 cents for standard automobiles, 6 cents for medium trucks and 19 cents for heavy trucks. A car trip from Gary to Chicago on I-65 would cost $6.12; a trip on I-94 from the Illinois to Michigan state lines would cost $1.80.

The study concluded the state would likely collect $39 billion in tolls over a 30-year period beginning in 2021, with a chance of that being as high as $53 billion.

HNTB will perform its own studies, using a tool developed by one of its subconsultants, CDM Smith, to estimate revenue. HNTB includes a chart in its proposal showing annual revenue ranging from about $800 million to nearly $2 billion, depending on toll rates.

The strategic plan will recommend a schedule for phasing in tolling, a method for toll collection, toll rates and methods to finance the project, among other topics. HNTB also proposes to integrate as much of the environmental work into the plan process as possible, to speed the overall project.

The strategic plan is due to be delivered to the Indiana General Assembly by Dec. 1, a deadline set in the state's 2017 transportation infrastructure legislation.

If negotiations with HNTB do not produce a contract, the state could enter negotiations with its selected alternate, Parsons Transportation Group.

HNTB has offices across the country, including in Chicago and Indianapolis.

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Transportation reporter

Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.