SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky, Indiana lack plan for out-of-state toll collection
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In New England, three states are working together to collect money from some drivers who pass through toll booths without paying.
The compact among Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire allows each state to pursue violators across their borders, placing holds on drivers' registrations and taking other measures to recoup overdue bills.
It's an approach Kentucky and Indiana leaders had in mind when they signed a sweeping agreement for the Ohio River Bridges Project in 2012. With “electronic” tolls -- and, therefore, no toll booths -- coming to the Louisville area, the states made “regional interoperability and reciprocity” one of 10 factors to consider in a tolling policy.
More than two years later, officials in both states say they remain open to reciprocal agreements but provided few other details about those efforts, raising questions about how they plan to collect from out-of-state toll scofflaws.
Kentucky is having “internal” talks but no active discussions with other states about entering into enforcement compacts, Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock said. However, he called the agreements an “ultimate goal.”
Indiana is in the “beginning stages of those conversations” with other states, public finance director Kendra York said.
York stopped short of saying she expects enforcement agreements to be in place when the region's toll bridges – a resurfaced Kennedy Bridge, a new Interstate 65 span and an eastern bridge at Prospect, Ky. – open to traffic in 2016.
“It's helpful to have those agreements, but we would certainly attempt to collect against out-of-state violators to the fullest ability that we could in the absence of it,” she said.
For now, the states plan to impose stiffer penalties on their own residents who don't pay tolls than on drivers from elsewhere. Both Kentucky and Indiana have laws in place allowing state governments to withhold the annual registration of vehicles with violations until the fees are paid.
To Kentucky state Rep. Jim Wayne, "it's a question of equity."
Wayne, a Louisville Democrat, said he was led to believe during toll discussions that "all users would be required to pay and there was a way to enforce that."
The issue hasn't yet joined the list of concerns raised by members of One Southern Indiana, the Clark and Floyd counties' chamber of commerce, said Wendy Dant Chesser, the organization's president and CEO.
Dant Chesser has asked Indiana officials to consider several “priority solutions” to ease tolling's burden on Southern Indiana businesses, including reclassifying some heavy trucks and changing traffic patterns on the Clark Memorial Bridge.
But Dant Chesser said Kentucky and Indiana ought to enact rules that hold all drivers accountable.
“A solution has to be found for that -- to ensure that everyone pays their fair share,” she said.
In a 2013 report, civil engineering firm HNTB Corp. cited the Louisville bridges and the Brent Spence Bridge replacement between Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati as examples of projects involving two states that face questions over toll collection.
The company noted that there are perils associated with sending bills to out-of-state drivers.
“[U]nless the owner has access to out-of-state vehicle data, or, better yet, an agreement of enforcement reciprocity with neighboring states, video tolling's usefulness in collecting tolls from out-of-state customers is reduced to the equivalent of the honor system,” HNTB concluded.
But Walter Fagerlund, senior technical adviser to HNTB, said the only agreement like that in the nation is the one in the northeast. As of last year, HNTB found, the compact had resulted in Massachusetts resolving 64 percent of fines associated with Maine license plates; and a 73 percent success rate for Maine plates in New Hampshire.
“Others have not quite gotten around to doing those arrangements yet,” Fagerlund said.
The Alliance for Toll Interoperability, whose members include toll agencies, has pushed for expanding the New England model to other regions. Alliance president JJ Eden said Pennsylvania and Virginia, for instance, are considering laws that would allow their states to apply sanctions to out-of-state toll violators.
Eden said the agreements send a public relations message: Out-of-state drivers will be held to similar enforcement standards in place for locals.
Toll road violators used to be fairly easy to spot -- they sped through toll booths without paying. But technology has changed how tolls are collected.
The $2.3 billion Louisville project joins other U.S. roads and bridges that are closing toll booths or not building them at all, banking on “cashless” collection methods that combine photographs and in-car transponders.
On both sides of the Ohio River, cameras and antennae mounted on overhead gantries will record thousands of license plates a day or scan the vehicles' transponders. Drivers who don't have toll accounts – either registered to the transponder or license plate number – will receive a bill in the mail.
But in none of the reports prepared for the project – including at least 600 pages of traffic studies -- did consultants track the origins of vehicles expected to use the toll bridges, a Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman said.
A WDRB News analysis of a key traffic report released last year concluded that an estimated 6,300 vehicles from outside Kentucky and Indiana – and lacking an account -- will use the toll bridges daily within the first decade after opening, or about 5 percent of 116,500 crossings.
Based on initial tolling rates approved last year, those trips account for annual toll revenue of at least $4.6 million the states will be trying to recoup, according to the analysis.
The Cabinet, which was provided the methodology and calculations used in the WDRB News analysis, did not dispute the conclusions.
Earlier this year, Kentucky and Indiana chose a Virginia firm to provide transponder stickers, which local drivers can place inside their windshields, and E-ZPass devices that drivers can also use on any U.S. toll road that takes E-ZPass.
Hancock said the states' goal is to “go beyond that where we don't just recognize each other's toll credentials. We're also able to tap each other's files to track down violators.”
Gaining access to those “files” -- states' motor vehicle department records -- is one step toll agencies are taking to get addresses of out-of-state drivers, said Neil Gray, government affairs director of the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association.
But it's not a foolproof approach. Gray said some states don't make their registration data available, and a “high proportion” of that data is incorrect – for example, people move and don't update the address listed on their registration.
“If you can get a good address, the vast majority of customers will pay,” Gray said.
For the Louisville project, traffic analysts estimate that 50 percent of invoices mailed to drivers without toll accounts will be paid. The collection rate falls to 40 percent if a second bill is mailed, and 15 percent if outstanding bills are sent to a collections agency.
Toll officials in Raleigh, N.C., have agreements allowing them to look up addresses of license plates in 15 states, covering 98 percent of out-of-state transactions, said Michelle Muir, customer service director for the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.
Muir said turnpike officials refer bills to out-of-state drivers to a collections agency if payments aren't made within two months. She wasn't able to provide figures showing how much money has been collected, saying the effort is in its infancy.
Meanwhile, drivers in Louisville and Southern Indiana may soon know the company that will oversee toll collections and enforcement.
A bi-state board overseeing the bridges project expects to choose a toll system operator in mid-September, said Will Wingfield, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation.
But officials from both states can't say when they expect to finalize a comprehensive tolling policy. York, the Indiana finance director, said the states want to proceed cautiously.
“We want to be slow and careful and deliberate and make good solid decisions going forward,” she said.
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