Deschenaux said that, as part of any deal, the state would have to pay, or arrange with its contractor to pay, the remaining loans used to build the project. That could free up some of the state's debt capacity for other projects, possibly including transit lines, he said.

Typically, as part of such deals, the government negotiates with the contractor to set minimum maintenance requirements and limits on how much tolls can rise over the term of the lease, Deschenaux said.

Whether the market would be receptive to such a deal is uncertain, however. For one thing, the Indiana contractor has seen a disappointing return on its investment, and future deals may be less lucrative for the governments involved.

John Gilmour, a government professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia who has studied such deals, said Indiana in effect collected $3.8 billion, representing 75 years of tolls, up front and poured the money into local road projects. The problem, Gilmour said, is that roads have an average life of 30 years while Indiana is giving up toll revenue for three-quarters of a century.

"The benefit is mostly in the first half or two-thirds of the lease period," he said. Thus, he said, the current generation and perhaps the next derive the benefits while the grandchildren of today's lawmakers bear the costs.

"There's a clear conflict of interest between the current and future generations," he said.

Busch said he doesn't have enough information now to make a judgment on the ICC proposal.

"The question is, at the end of the day, is this just a temporary fix that's going to cause greater problems down the road," he said. "Usually when things seem too good to be true, they're too good to be true."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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