CROWN POINT | Lake county commissioners voted unanimously Monday to pursue a bid for lease rights to the Indiana Toll Road in a joint venture with LaPorte County.
A positive vote is still needed by the Lake County Council to join the bid pursuit. That vote is scheduled for Tuesday.
It's all part of a quest for local government to claim the revenue rights to the state-owned Toll Road, which was leased to a private Australian-Spanish consortium in 2007, Commissioner Gerry Scheub said Monday.
That consortium, ITR Concession, recently declared bankruptcy on more than $6 billion in debt, prompting Lake and LaPorte County government leaders to begin pursuing a possible lease takeover.
Attorneys representing the counties contend that taxpayers won't bear any liability in the lease takeover, which would bring $5 million annual payments to the two counties — plus any revenue beyond the cost to maintain and operate the roadway — for the next 67 years.
Rather, attorney Shaw Friedman, who represents LaPorte County, said the Toll Road would be operated by a nonprofit group sponsored by the two counties. All liability and bond repayment would fall back on the Toll Road revenues, not the sponsors, Friedman told the commissioners Monday.
"I've never looked a gift horse in the mouth," Commissioner Scheub told The Times after the three commissioners approved pursuing the lease. "But this one is real.
"I can't see any flaw in this plan whatsoever," Scheub added, noting he initially was skeptical of any plan that would entail a county takeover of the lease.
The two-county bid effort is likely to have some competition. Transportation industry intelligence newsletter, InfraAmericas, named three other private consortiums that have reportedly submitted bids for the lease, including a Canadian investment group and other foreign infrastructure groups.
LaPorte County government is slated to vote on pursuing the local government bid later this month.
Under the plan, the two counties would hire private firm, Globalvia, to manage and operate the 157-mile highway.
The counties would form the Northern Indiana Toll Road Authority, a nonprofit public-benefit corporation that would issue billions of dollars in bonds to buy the Toll Road from its creditors.
The Toll Road's western-most section passes through Hammond, Gary and Lake Station in Lake County; Portage and Chesterton in Porter County; and New Durham and Center Townships in LaPorte County. It continues east to the Indiana-Ohio border.
Investment bank Piper Jaffray & Co., of Minneapolis, estimated last fall the Toll Road could produce between $38 million and $53 million per year after operating and maintenance expenses.