Ex-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels visits Lewis and Clark Bridge - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Ex-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels visits Lewis and Clark Bridge

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UTICA, Ind. (WDRB) -- Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels toured the Lewis and Clark Bridge on Wednesday, his first visit to the Ohio River crossing he was instrumental in helping move toward construction.

Daniels, now president of Purdue University, was governor when the Ohio River Bridges Project hit a funding stalemate in the early 2010s. Along with then-Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, Daniels crafted a plan in early 2011 that shaved hundreds of millions of dollars from the project’s price tag.

As a result of those cuts -- including rebuilding Louisville’s Kennedy Interchange in its existing footprint, rather than encroaching on the Butchertown neighborhood – the states were able to divide the project and secure financing backed largely by toll revenue. The Lewis and Clark, which Indiana built using a “public-private partnership” approved by the Daniels administration, opened in late December.

“Just to see it, actually drive across it for the first time – you know, it was a pretty moving thing,” Daniels told reporters in Utica, just north of the bridge.

He said the addition of companies and jobs to the River Ridge Commerce Center and Ports of Indiana at Jeffersonville, not far from the Lewis and Clark Bridge, is “exactly what people forecast and said would happen.”

He recalled the cooperation between the two states, which at the time were controlled by different political parties, and said: “It should never be overlooked how unique it was – the two states, two different political parties for what little that matters – were able to make this particular project happen.”

“At a time when folks are at each other so and it seems to be divided and people can’t cooperate on anything -- here’s a pretty emphatic counterexample,” said Daniels, a Republican. “Let’s just hope there are more like it coming from somewhere.”

Under the Daniels administration, Indiana finance officials began negotiating a deal that ultimately required the state to pay contractor WVB East End Partners up to $2 billion over the next 35 years. The agreement was finalized shortly after Gov. Mike Pence took office.

Toll revenues are to be used to cover the payments, which are set to come from Indiana’s transportation budget. At the time the deal was struck, critics expressed concern that government appropriations – rather than toll money – were covering the payments to WVB East End Partners.

On Wednesday, Daniels said “time will tell how good” the arrangement is.

“Relying on the consistent input that I had for ten years of coming down here, I’m just convinced that this project – as much as any of those that we did – was well-conceived,” he said.

During his time in office, Daniels appointed members to the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, a panel of local business leaders and citizens that shepherded the bridges project through decisions on tolling and other matters.

Originally meant to oversee the project for years to come, the bridges authority no longer meets and has ceded much of its work to high-ranking appointees of transportation and finance agencies in Kentucky and Indiana.

Daniels said that while the bridges authority’s work should be remembered, “I think we can have some confidence in the people (making decisions now). At least the ones I’m aware of are very public spirited, good public servants.”

Daniels, who served in the White House under President Ronald Reagan, said he isn’t planning on attending Friday’s inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President. But he said Pence, the Vice President-elect, is in “a place to do a lot of good for America.”

“I think he’s well-matched,” Daniels said. “He’s been asked to serve by a President who is brand new to all this and Gov. Pence is back in his element, really. He knows Washington. He knows the House and the Senate. He knows people there, and I think he can complement this new group of people who have come in – most of whom come in without that background.”

Daniels, who has been rumored as a candidate for president in years past, said he has no plans to run again for elected office.

“I’ve got a great assignment right now working with young people at Purdue University – and that’s public enough for me.”

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