BY PATRICK GUINANE, Times of Northwest Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS | Gov. Mitch Daniels wants to build a privately financed tollway to relieve congestion around Indianapolis -- a project that local officials hope will serve as a blueprint for reducing traffic in Northwest Indiana.

Speaking Thursday to a gathering of engineers, the Republican governor proposed building what he calls the Indiana Commerce Connector, a 75-mile route south and east of Indianapolis that would resemble the letter "J." The tollway, to be built and financed by private firms at a cost of at least $1 billion, would connect four existing interstates in an attempt to relieve congestion around the capital city.

"I propose that this road be built the modern way -- as a public-private partnership," Daniels said. "This would be a toll road built with my favorite revenue source -- other people's money."

State Sen. Sue Landske, R-Cedar Lake, said the proposal could lay a foundation for the Illiana Expressway, a long-sought east-west expressway that would run through south Lake County, connecting Interstate 57 in Illinois with Interstate 65 in Indiana.

"The concept is exactly what we want to do with the Illiana Expressway to relieve traffic," said Landske, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee. "Just as they're concerned about relieving traffic (around Indianapolis), we can accomplish the same thing with our Illiana Expressway and relieve traffic on I-80/94."

Illinois and Indiana transportation officials have been meeting to map out planning for an Illiana Expressway. Outgoing Indiana Transportation Commissioner Tom Sharp said the two states reached an agreement this week that will have Indiana lead the initiative. In the coming months, he said, the two states will hire a consultant to conduct an initial study of the route.

Daniels and Sharp have said the Illiana Expressway would be a perfect candidate for a public-private partnership, meaning a private firm likely would build the route and charge tolls. Sharp, who plans to leave the Indiana Department of Transportation at the end of the month, said the Indianapolis-area tollway that Daniels proposed on Thursday should provide a model for an Illiana Expressway.

"You've got to consider a public-private partnership as one of the more viable options to do a major project of that type," said John Swanson, executive director for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. "We would hope the that Illiana would be high on Tom's successor's agenda."

Sharp says he is headed back to retirement after nearly two years at INDOT. Daniels is replacing him with Karl Browning, chief information officer for the state Office of Technology.

Indiana became an overnight leader in the public-private partnership realm earlier this year, with Daniels engineering the $3.8 billion private lease of the Indiana Toll Road. That windfall will finance Major Moves, a 10-year, $11.8 billion road construction plan.

The plan originally called for building a tollway extension of Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Evansville. Daniels now says the road will be free. The governor hopes that bidders for the Indiana Commerce Connector route he proposes will provide the $1.3 billion in toll-related revenue he was counting on to build the $2 billion I-69 project.

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