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In 1937, Indiana adopted “the Crossroads of America” as its official motto. The phrase reflects the state’s position at the heart of the nation and as a gateway to other markets. Accordingly, being “the Crossroads of America” has served the state very well from a business standpoint, encouraging investment from businesses that depend upon ready access to interstate highways.

Now, however, a burgeoning movement seeks to further move us away from our legacy as a crossroads toward a reputation for toll roads -- and this movement is being led by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. It is my strong belief that the governor’s actions are short-sighted, catastrophic for our economy and ultimately bad for the citizens he has pledged to serve.

Under the guise of the “Next Level Connections” initiative, Gov. Holcomb is seeking to raise more than $1 billion in tax revenue to improve broadband access in rural Indiana, increase hiking and biking trails, improve roadways, establish more nonstop international flights to and from Indianapolis, and accelerate progress on the completion of major highway projects. The initiative also encompasses a new water port at Lawrenceburg and the expansion of rail projects in Northwest Indiana.

These are worthy projects, but there’s a tremendous flaw with the governor’s plan: it would be funded by an increase in toll road fees or taxes for vehicles rated Class 3 and above, which include most heavy trucks, trucks with trailers and semitrailers — the vehicles that serve as the foundation of Indiana’s economy and the embodiment of our business position as the nation’s Crossroads. And while truck operators will bear the burden of the initial costs, the ultimate victim of the governor’s action will be Indiana citizens, as costs are passed down to consumers, business investment relocates out of state and good-paying jobs are lost to states that better understand why a thriving trucking industry is such a tremendous asset.

Even a cursory cost-benefit analysis of the governor’s plans reveals its weaknesses. Consider all the ways in which trucking helps drive the Indiana economy:

• The total trucking industry wages paid in Indiana in 2016 exceeded $8.7 billion

• Indiana’s trucking industry already contributes more than $1 billion in federal and state roadway taxes

• Nearly 200,000 Hoosiers are employed in the trucking industry -- 1 out of every 13 jobs in the state

• More than 80 percent of Indiana communities depend exclusively on trucks to move their goods

Also, the governor’s proposal ignores the fact that Indiana truckers have already done their part beyond the disproportionately high tax burden they already bear. During the 2017 session of the Indiana General Assembly, for example, the industry supported efforts to raise additional money for roads via an over 80 percent increase in the diesel fuel tax, at a time when automobile gasoline taxes increased just 11 cents. This increase makes Indiana diesel fuel taxes the fourth-highest in the U.S. Despite the fact that trucks are responsible for 11 percent of all the miles driven on Indiana’s public roads, our truckers have proven they’re willing to do more than their fair share. However, they are not -- understandably -- willing to be the sole funder of the governor’s initiative.

While there’s much to criticize in the Next Level Connections initiative, perhaps the biggest issue is the degree to which it has been developed in secrecy. As the Times of Northwest Indiana reported on Sept. 4, Holcomb admitted that “Indiana and Toll Road officials worked in secret over the past 12 months,” and the Times' request to review a third-party assessment of the deal was denied.

Why would the governor have these conversations in private? Why is he afraid of it getting more scrutiny?

The answer, of course, is simple: this deal is bad for the trucking industry. It’s bad for Indiana. It’s bad for the hard-working men and women who bring products to market every day. The road to taxing the trucking industry will ultimately be paved with money taken out of your pockets.

It’s time for the debate about the Next Level Connections initiative to be conducted in public and not “in secret” as it was the past 12 months. It’s time for you, the citizens of Indiana, to have a voice in an issue that affects all of us. Let the governor know you want to maintain our position as the Crossroads of America and not become known for irresponsible taxation. Let him know that if Indiana truly wants to get to the Next Level, it must support its trucking industry, and not drive it to a grinding halt.

Gary Langston is president of the Indiana Motor Truck Association (IMTA) and can be reached at gary@intrucking.org. The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.