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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Commercial truck traffic will more than double on the aging Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial bridges as a result of tolls on new Ohio River crossings set to open in 2016, a WDRB.com analysis of traffic projections shows.
With tolls of up to $12 each way on the new bridges, the number of road-pounding trucks is expected to steadily increase on the Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial bridges – soaring by more than 125 percent from current levels by 2030, according to a review of a Kentucky consultant's report released in late August.
In fact, it's those existing bridges that will carry the bulk of interstate truck traffic in the years to come, even as two new Ohio River bridges – one on I-65 downtown and one upriver – are added at a cost of $2.6 billion.
Even with the new downtown span, truck traffic is actually projected to decline on I-65 across the river by about half within six years – a drop of more than 9,000 vehicles per day. At the same time, trucks will flock to the Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial, the analysis shows.
Those two bridges now carry about 8,500 trucks each day. But about 14,775 trucks will use them by 2018, and 19,250 by 2030, the forecast estimates.
Kentucky and Indiana transportation officials say the estimates are conservative and are meant to show that tolls will produce enough revenue to meet financing needs "even at high traffic diversion rates and low river crossing rates," said Chuck Wolfe, spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
But predictions of more truck traffic on the Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial raise questions about the cost of maintaining and repairing those spans – and their approach roads.
The 1960s-era Sherman Minton was closed for more than five months starting in 2011 because of a crack in a key structural support, causing a traffic nightmare for Southern Indiana and Louisville drivers.
"It's just going to obviously add to the wear and tear of those existing bridges and necessitate the replacement of those bridges sooner rather than later," said Steve Wiser, a Louisville architect who unsuccessfully pushed for local-access bridges as an alternative to the interstate bridge project.
About 20,000 of the 29,000 trucks that crossed the river at Louisville last year took the Kennedy Bridge, according to Steer Davies Gleave, the Boston consultant that conducted the traffic and revenue study needed for Kentucky to sell bonds for its share of the bridges project.
However, those patterns are expected to change in 2018, after tolls are added to a rehabilitated Kennedy, which carries I-65 between Louisville and Jeffersonville, Ind.; a new, adjacent span; and a new bridge upriver connecting Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky.
Instead of booths requiring vehicles to slow down or stop, tolls will be levied when vehicles pass beneath gantries equipped with cameras and sensors. Bills will be mailed to drivers who don't have a pre-paid account pegged to an electronic transponder or a registered license plate.
The toll rates will be set by a six-person board whose members include transportation and finance officials from both states. Last month, the board set initial rates that ranged from $1 for frequent drivers in passenger cars to $12 for large trucks that don't have a pre-paid toll account.
More maintenance likely
The nation's roads and bridges are designed to handle truck traffic, but a sharp increase in heavy vehicles on roadways typically requires more maintenance and could result in added bridge inspections, said Andy Herrmann, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
"You want to make sure the bridges are in good shape when you add truck traffic," said Herrmann, principal at the Hardesty & Hanover engineering firm in New York.
In Louisville, the roads that truckers would likely use to skirt tolls mostly appear to be in good shape.
Only one of the overpasses on I-264 en route to the Sherman Minton is considered "structurally deficient" after being rated "poor" during its last inspection, according to a national bridge inventory review by the group Transportation For America. But two elevated sections of I-64 downtown were rated in "serious" condition based on 2011 inspections.
The Transportation for America data found no deficient overpasses on I-265 or I-64 in Southern Indiana.
Kentucky and Indiana officials declined to say if they have estimated the repair and maintenance costs for routes that may carry more truck traffic.
But Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield noted that $14 million was spent to reinforce the 1960s-era Sherman Minton, which was closed for more than five months after a crack was found in a key structural support in September 2011. Meanwhile, ramps and roads leading to the Clark Memorial in Indiana will be rebuilt as part of the bridges project.
The Clark opened in 1929. Both it and the Sherman Minton are considered "functionally obsolete" because their designs don't meet modern standards, but neither bridge is deficient.
Even though the traffic report predicts that more vehicles, including heavy trucks, will be funneled to existing bridges, Wolfe said the Kennedy is "also an aging bridge, a high-maintenance bridge and would have to be completely taken out of service to undergo the reconditioning it needs and will receive" as part of the project.
Still, the prospect of additional spending for existing roads comes as Kentucky transportation officials are warning legislators that more money is needed for the state's roadway maintenance program. Cabinet leaders told a General Assembly panel last month that the $646 million budget isn't keeping up with rising costs.
The impact of bridge tolls on trucks crossing the river will depend on factors like miles traveled and whether the drivers are employees or vehicle owners, according to the traffic report.
In interviews with six trucking industry members - - whom the consultant declined to name – truck owners were more likely to avoid tolls, and trucks traveling short distances will reap the most time savings associated with the new bridges.
The Kentucky Motor Transport Association, a trucking industry group, doesn't oppose tolls as a way to pay for the project, but president Jamie Fiepke said he has concerns with several assumptions in the traffic forecast and predicts it will be a "borderline break even" cost for truckers who choose to use alternatives to the I-65 bridges.
The report assumes that 80 percent of truck drivers will use a transponder, but Fiepke anticipates lower usage because it will only cost truckers $2 more to receive an invoice in the mail.
If the high use of transponders among truckers doesn't materialize, Fiepke said, toll collection will rely more on cameras reading license plates – and he questions whether those will be accurate enough to meet the overall 97 percent collection rate project planners expect.
"When you don't encourage the use of the most efficient technology there is, then that is our concern. That's a big concern," he said. "If the collection rate isn't what they think it's going to be, guess who is going to pay the next cost up? It's going to be the local guys. That's not fair," he said.
Among those who plan to avoid the toll bridges is Michael Deaton, owner of 4-D Trucking in Harrison County, Ind., who hauls rail containers in the Louisville region and to and from the Chicago area. He said the $10 toll for truckers with a pre-paid transponder is "very unreasonable."
"They're expecting trucks to pay for these bridges – that's what it seems to me," he said.
But Mark Elrod, a Peru, Ind., driver, said the initial toll rates aren't excessive, compared with toll roads on the East Coast, for example. Drivers will calculate their fuel costs when planning routes that are made longer by avoiding tolls, he said.
"If you don't want to pay the fee, go around. You do have an alternative," Elrod said.
Louisville is home to the main air hub and a large trucking operation for UPS, which sends about 75 tractor trailers between Louisville and Southern Indiana every day. The company is reviewing the proposed toll rates to decide how to budget the costs, spokesman Mike Mangeot said.
The tolling body hasn't decided whether to offer a discount rate for heavy trucks, Kentucky and Indiana officials said.
Gotta Go Trucking, which carries rock, mulch and other materials from Clarksville, Ind., expects to increase some prices as it decides how to budget $230,000 a year in projected toll costs, said Rosemary Barmore, chief financial officer for affiliate Dan Cristiani Excavating.
Gotta Go trucks typically use I-65 to cross the river to reach a quarry off River Road in Louisville, so bypassing the downtown tolls isn't feasible, Barmore said. The company also isn't counting on time savings from a faster commute across the river.
"I think we've already tried to adjust for that by going over early in the morning – you know, getting out before the traffic or getting out in the middle of the day, avoiding the rush hours," Barmore said.