Kentucky, Indiana finishing plan to lessen bridge toll burden on - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Kentucky, Indiana finishing plan to lessen bridge toll burden on low-income, minority commuters

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky and Indiana are finalizing a plan meant to ease the sting of bridge tolls on low-income and minority commuters in the Louisville area.

The plan, part of the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, requires the states to focus on parts of Louisville and Southern Indiana with high concentrations of those residents.

Kentucky transportation leaders have declined to say what measures were recommended in a report sent to the Federal Highway Administration last December. The highway administration has reviewed the states' proposal, provided comments and expects a final version in the coming weeks, spokesman Doug Hecox said.

The states have the ultimate authority over the mitigation measures, he said.

But Kentucky officials now acknowledge that there could be key differences from an earlier draft put forth in 2013.

At that time, the two states dismissed the idea of setting discount toll rates for low-income drivers because it could lead to a “significant administrative and enforcement challenge.”

Asked last week if the idea has been shelved for good, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said: “It was not being pursued at that time, so that's really all we can say about it.”

Tolls are to start by late 2016 or early 2017 on three of the five crossings between Louisville and Southern Indiana: the Kennedy Bridge, a new span being built next to it and an upriver crossing under construction between Prospect, Ky., and Utica, Ind.

No toll booths are planned, but cameras and antennae near the bridges will record license plates or scan transponders on vehicles' windshields. Drivers who don't have toll accounts – linked to the transponder or a license plate – will be billed by mail.

The states' tolling body has set initial rates that range from $1 for frequent drivers to $12 for heavy trucks such as tractor-trailers that don't use transponders. But a final tolling policy can't be finished until the states decide how to ease the burden on low-income and minority residents.

Bridges project consultants identified downtown and western Louisville and parts of Jeffersonville and Charlestown, Ind., as areas with clusters of residents who would be disproportionately affected by tolls.

Dozens of Census “block groups” also qualify, including neighborhoods adjacent to I-65 between the Watterson Expressway and the Gene Snyder Freeway and near Dixie Highway and the Snyder.

On average, drivers from affected neighborhoods would see a 21 percent increase in cost per trip – compared with an 11 percent jump for drivers from other areas.

For full-time, low-income workers crossing the river on toll bridges, paying a $1 toll would result in out-of-pocket costs of $480 a year, according to project studies. A 2011 survey found that 36 percent of the area's low-income population, and 57 percent of minority residents, cross the river every weekday or several times each week.

The states have repeatedly touted increased bus service – including coaches with free Wi-Fi – that was made possible with $20 million in bridges project funds. The investment has added 21 TARC buses, including on routes that cross the river.

But last week TARC announced service cuts on seven routes in an effort to trim $1.2 million in budget costs. A mid-day trip between downtown and Sellersburg, Ind., is the only cross-river route seeing any cuts, but transit agency spokesman Jon Reiter stressed that all rush-hour trips would remain intact.

Kentucky and Indiana have yet to decide whether to exempt TARC buses from tolls – a request TARC's board made nearly two years ago.

“We have consistently and for some time now voiced our objection (to tolls). … We've voiced it in a way that supports exempting TARC from being tolled,” said Kay Stewart, a TARC spokeswoman.

Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock has declined to talk specifically about the options under consideration but said last month he expected a final version in place by May 15. That schedule is still the goal, Russ Romine, Hancock's executive adviser, said last week.

“Obviously as you look at the schedule – the development of the business rules, the tolling policy and all that -- it's incumbent upon us to get this process concluded as quickly as possible. So that's what we're trying to do,” Romine said.

The prospect of having to pay tolls to cross the river is a “pretty frightening reality to low-income families,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Brooks, who was among those who submitted comments on the states' 2013 draft plan, suggested in an interview that a disconnect may exist between those who set the tolling policy and the drivers affected by it.

“How do decision makers, how do policy makers really feel the impact of what that would do to a family?” Brooks said. “Again, a few dollars for you and me or a few dollars for a lawmaker may or may not feel like a lot.”

The six-member tolling body includes the top transportation and finance officials in Kentucky and Indiana and representatives from the agency in each state in charge of financing.

Among Kentucky's members are Hancock and Finance Secretary Lori Flanery, both of whom make $139,000 a year, Kentucky's salary database shows. According to the Indianapolis Star, new Indiana new transportation chief Brandye Hendrickson was making $93,450 in 2013 -- before her recent promotion.

Brooks and others, including Kentucky State Rep. Jim Wayne, have pushed for a tax break to help offset the cost of bridge tolls for Kentuckians who work in Indiana and qualify for the federal earned income tax credit. In 2015, a single person making $14,850 would qualify, according to Internal Revenue Service data.

Wayne sponsored a bill in 2014 that would have created the toll refund, estimated at $1.9 million a year, but it died in a General Assembly House committee. He said in a recent interview that he plans to introduce the measure again next year and add a provision exempting TARC from tolls.

Wayne also claimed Transportation Cabinet officials have failed to act transparently in developing the low-income aspect of the toll plan.

“There are thousands of people affected by this decision,” he said. “There's no open discussion about it and they're basically hiding the document from us and they're negotiating this behind closed doors.”

Hancock dismissed the criticism.

“Honoring a commitment made to the Federal Highway Administration, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is engaged in creating a robust Environmental Justice plan for mitigating the effects of tolling on disadvantaged people in the Louisville area,” he said in a statement. “Following a very public outreach, the cabinet, Indiana DOT and FHWA are working together to craft a final plan.”

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