SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky, Indiana counting on bridge tolls until 2068
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky and Indiana are planning for tolls to remain on the new Louisville-area bridges at least until 2068 -- 15 years after the construction debt for the spans is paid off.
The states expect $2.3 billion in operations and maintenance costs – including for "toll operations" – over a roughly 50-year period starting in 2017, according to an updated Ohio River Bridges Project financial plan approved by the Federal Highway Administration in January.
Transportation officials from both states stressed in interviews that no one is sure just how long the tolls will last. They said the estimates are simply meant to show how much money is needed to maintain the new bridges and roads and to eventually replace the Kennedy Bridge.
"To my knowledge, I don't know that anybody has said definitively we're never taking tolls off this, and I don't know if anyone has ever said definitively we're taking tolls off of this … when we get the bonds paid off," said Andy Barber, the bridges project manager for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
DOCUMENT: The Ohio River Bridges Project's updated 2014 financial plan
It's fairly certain that tolls, which will go into effect late next year or in early 2017, will last until at least 2053, when the construction debt is estimated to be repaid. Future leaders will decide how long tolls remain beyond that, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said – similar to the actions that removed tolls from all roads in Kentucky's parkway system by the mid-2000s.
"Those decisions were made to remove tolls, you know, case by case as bonds were retired," Wolfe said. "And those were political decisions made at the time. So … I don't know that you can say specifically what a future generation of decision makers is going to do."
Kentucky and Indiana are budgeting bridge-related maintenance costs for 50 years, or enough time to get through the first major pavement work and other repairs, said Ron Heustis, bridges project manager for the Indiana Department of Transportation.
Heustis said the bridges currently under construction – a downtown span next to the Kennedy Bridge and an upriver crossing at Utica, Ind. – will be halfway through their "theoretical life cycle" at that point.
"The tolling has become the option to design, build and operate and maintain this for a period of time. And then at some point if that's no longer the option, then what becomes the option?"
For decades, that option had been revenue from gasoline taxes. But with dwindling state and federal funds available for large transportation projects, officials in both states chose a mix of tolls, loans and gas tax monies to pay for the new bridges.
Approved by the federal government in 2003 and, in a slimmed-down version in 2012, the bridges project is set to end no later than 2053, when the construction debt is fully repaid, according to a development agreement signed in 2012 and later amended.
In that same agreement, however, Kentucky and Indiana decided that the "framework, parameters and procedures" of tolling can be extended if the states' leaders choose.
Promises of ending tolls often don't occur, "leaving drivers footing the bill longer than expected as toll collection persists and rates continually rise," Julian Walker, spokesman for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, said in a prepared statement.
"The unmet promise of tolls expiring is one of the many reasons why tolls on existing interstate lanes is the worst possible way to pay for roads. Those fees double tax the public for the use of roads, are an inefficient means of funding roads, and are so administratively error-prone that drivers routinely face fines they don't owe," the statement said in part.
Among the alliance's members are UPS and the Kentucky Motor Transport Association.
"Open debate and discussion"
Kentucky State Rep. Arnold Simpson watched a bill move through the state legislature in 2009 that allowed Louisville's bridges project to advance.
Simpson, a Covington Democrat, voted against that measure in part because it opened the door for tolls. Now, more than five years later, he is opposing a bill in the General Assembly that would permit the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge at Cincinnati to be built using public-private partnerships.
The bill passed the Kentucky House Feb. 25, but Simpson successfully amended the measure so that if tolls are part of the Brent Spence, they'll be taken off when the debt is repaid.
"Once it's constructed and paid for, it's a part of the state system, and just like the highways in western Kentucky and eastern Kentucky and northern Kentucky and central Kentucky, should be maintained by tax dollars and not by tolls," Simpson said in an interview.
Simpson said he had hoped to delay the measure, House Bill 443, "so we can glean the experience from Jefferson County." He noted, for example, that there is still little clarity on toll rates and steps to ease the burden on low-income workers in Louisville and Southern Indiana.
He called it "unfortunate" that the Louisville project has no requirement that tolls be removed when the bonds are repaid.
Simpson's amendment to HB 443 would require that tolls be removed from any project costing $100 million or more that uses a public-private partnership. The amendment passed 47-41 with 11 members of Jefferson County's Frankfort delegation in support -- nine Democrats and 2 Republicans.
Among those voting with Simpson was Louisville Rep. Jim Wayne, a Democrat who said the measure adds transparency to how tolls will be used.
For years, Wayne has questioned leaving toll-related decisions on the Louisville project to appointed officials, not elected leaders.
Kentucky transportation officials told state lawmakers three years ago that tolls could continue after the construction bonds are paid off to help pay for additional work on the Kennedy, although no possible end date was given.
Wayne said there needs to be "an open debate and discussion" about a possible end date for tolls and whether toll revenue should be used to replace the Kennedy decades from now.
In an interview, he argued that the recent financial plan does appear to indicate the states want tolling to continue until 2068.
"We need to have a transparent system on when the tolls are examined, when they're going to be raised, when they're ever going to ever be lowered or ended," Wayne said. "And, also, if they're going to be extended beyond the life of the bonds -- we need to have a discussion about that too."
Barber, of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said the state's plan is to use toll revenue to help pay for a replacement of the Kennedy in 35 years. That could include toll money generated after 2053, when debt payments end, or revenues accumulated until that point, he said.
"Once the bonds are paid off – I don't know. Maybe it goes away," Barber said. "But what we've done leading up to that is we've addressed all those concerns. So we know we're going to have money for that infrastructure repair."
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