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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Better public transit, from light rail to increased bus service, is the most popular idea Louisvillians have submitted as part of Mayor Greg Fischer's Vision Louisville project.
And Fischer himself told Kentucky lawmakers last week that improved public transportation would be the "most likely" use of a new local sales tax he is backing.
Yet the tolling plan for the Ohio River Bridges Project assumes that Louisville won't see any transit upgrades over the next four decades that will radically change how people cross the river – and threaten toll revenue needed to pay off the $2.6 billion highway plan.
Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock said he doesn't believe there's a strong likelihood "that something would dramatically change as far as transit in the metropolitan area."
Ridership on Transit Authority of River City buses in 2012 was at its highest level since 2008, although the 15.2 million riders represented TARC's average for the past decade, according to agency statistics. The biggest spike in bus use occurred when Louisville gas prices rose above $4 per gallon in 2008.
But recent studies show that driving is declining in Kentucky and Indiana, and a report released last month by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials – an industry group that includes both states' transportation departments – found that the number of car-free American households has begun to increase after decades of decline.
Speaking to state lawmakers in Frankfort last week, Fischer touted transit as a possible benefactor of a plan that would allow Louisville to create a temporary sales tax of up to 1 percent to pay for public projects. The Kentucky constitution would need to be amended for the increased tax to be put before voters.
"The proceeds from a local option sales tax in a city like Louisville most likely would go to public transportation, which would help people get to jobs easier than they do now," Fischer told the Kentucky General Assembly's joint budget committee.
During the Vision Louisville process, which is assembling a list of priorities for the city in the coming decades, increased public transit has emerged as the leading idea, said Fischer and project manager Jeff O'Brien.
"People are demanding that we move away from the option of just getting around Louisville in their cars," O'Brien said.
Does Vision Louisville's grassroots push for better public transportation contrast with Kentucky officials' belief that there won't be enough new public transit in Louisville to change how most people get around?
The state's assumption is "shortsighted," said Jackie Green, who unsuccessfully ran for Louisville Mayor in 2010 on a platform that included public transit.
"The demand is for better public transit," he said. "Any city that is going to be competitive in the coming decades has got to have great public transit."
The future of public transportation and the bridges project are intertwined because of how Kentucky and Indiana plan to cover the cost of two new Ohio River crossings and a rebuilt downtown Louisville interchange.
Toll revenue collected when drivers use the three toll bridges – the Interstate 65 Kennedy Bridge, a new span next to it and an upriver bridge between Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky. – will be used to pay off $750 million Kentucky plans to borrow this fall. Indiana, which already has secured its financing, will use toll revenues to cover a series of annual legislative appropriations for the project that start at $37 million in 2017.
In order to complete its financing, Kentucky commissioned a study that estimated revenue from the toll bridges. A key assumption in the report is that a major increase in public transit won't cut into toll revenues from passenger vehicles and commercial trucks.
"To have a significant impact on the traffic and the revenue at the downtown crossing, you would have to have a new (transit) facility that would take tens of thousands of vehicles off or out of the traffic stream onto the transit routing," Hancock said in an interview.
But what if it does?
In that case, Hancock said, the states would likely look to raise revenues from within the "context of our existing project," suggesting a toll increase rather than adding tolls to other bridges such as the I-64 Sherman Minton or the local access Clark Memorial Bridge.
"If a very significant amount of transportation went into some other transportation outlet, then we would have to look at the revenues required for the project and whatever adjustments would have to be made," he said.
Fischer downplayed the assumption in the state's report, saying in an interview that the number of public transit trips across the river is small compared to the total crossings.
"What we have to understand there is the data of how much of the public transportation is really cross-river, versus … within the city itself," Fischer said. "And I think what you'd find is the majority is within the city itself. So I don't think that would be material."
TARC's two busiest lines – the Dixie and Preston highway corridors, and the Bardstown Road-Broadway route – each carry about 8,000 people a day, said Barry Barker, the agency's executive director. He said bus routes crossing the river average about 1,500 riders a day.
"Forty years is a long time to speculate, but I think their assumption is a pretty good one," Barker said.
While trends could change in the decades to come, the share of commuters using public transit to get to work has remained flat, at 5 percent, in recent decades, said Robert Poole, transportation policy director at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.
"It has hardly nudged at all during that time," he said.
Predicting the demand for traffic across the Ohio River has proven difficult. About 224,000 vehicles use existing bridges each day, and Kentucky's traffic consultant estimates that 285,000 cars, trucks and buses will cross by 2030. Previous projections for 2030 estimated 310,400 and 362,900 vehicles, respectively.
Meanwhile, the number of vehicle miles travelled per person is declining In Kentucky and Indiana, according to a report released this summer by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The study evaluated federal data and found, for example, that since peaking in 1999, the average Kentuckian drives 720 fewer miles per year.
Phineas Baxandall, who has studied driving trends for the research group, questions why the recent traffic study would assume no significant transit increase in the Louisville area.
"It sounds like a mixture of ignoring trends and self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. "If you're pouring the money into highway projects, which end up starving transit projects, there is a way that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."