LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky and Indiana will exempt TARC buses from tolls, distribute free transponders at retailers in low-income and minority neighborhoods and erect signs showing how to reach toll-free bridges.

Those are among the measures included in the states' plan for lessening the financial sting on commuters who are expected to be disproportionately affected when tolls start on three bridges between Louisville and Southern Indiana.

The plan -- set to be approved Thursday by the Ohio River Bridges Project's tolling body – comes after years of work to ease the burden of tolls on communities with concentrations of low-income and minority residents. It is a federal requirement of the $2.3 billion project.

(The image below shows low-income areas. Courtesy: Steer Davies Gleave)

TARC officials have pushed for the toll exemption for years. The transit agency's board asked in 2013 that its buses not be required to pay tolls and, more recently, TARC announced cuts to seven routes in an effort to trim $1.2 million in budget costs.

"I think it's great,” said Barry Barker, TARC's executive director. “It's the outcome I've been hoping for all along.”

RELATED | States close in on toll mitigation plan

The states' plan doesn't include tax credits for low-income commuters who would pay tolls to cross the river for work – a move backed by some Kentucky legislators. And it doesn't include lower tolls based on income.

But in a report provided by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the states argue that their approach will ease the impact of tolls expected to start at $1 per crossing.

"The cumulative effect of all of the mitigation measures to which the States are committed will narrow the user cost gap and, thereby, mitigate the disproportionately high and adverse effect of tolling that would otherwise be experienced by the (low-income and minority) populations," the report concludes.

The focus is on areas of Louisville and Southern Indiana where at least half of the residents qualify as low-income or are minorities. In many cases, those areas include both, according to project consultants.

In particular, downtown and western Louisville and parts of Jeffersonville and Charlestown, Ind., are expected to be hardest hit by tolls on the Interstate 65 crossings – the Kennedy bridge and a new span next to it – and an upriver bridge between Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky.

Other Census “block groups” also qualify. Those include neighborhoods next to I-65 between the Watterson Expressway and the Gene Snyder Freeway and near Dixie Highway and the Snyder.

As a share of their income, drivers in the affected neighborhoods would see a 21 percent increase in cost per trip, compared with an 11 percent jump for other drivers.

“The best thing they've done is to relieve TARC of the expenses,” said Natalie Harris, executive director of Louisville's Coalition for the Homeless. “Our concern already is TARC is having to cut back on their existing programs.”

Harris said other aspects of the plan will make it “easier but not more affordable” for low-income residents to use the toll bridges.

The six-member tolling body is expected to approve the plan at its meeting Thursday in Louisville. Public comment will be permitted. The meeting starts at 11 a.m. at the Transportation Cabinet's office at 8310 Westport Road.

Kentucky and Indiana have agreed to:

-Provide free transponders, which will attach to drivers' windshields and allow electronic toll collection devices to track bridge crossings

-Designate food markets, gas stations and grocery stores where transponders can be picked up in or near the affected communities

-Create an office for walk-up interactions

-Develop a smartphone app for ordering transponders

-Create a marketing strategy to increase transponder usage among low-income and minority drivers

-Require a “relatively low” balance of $20 to create a toll account

-Allow a range of methods for paying tolls, such as credit cards, money orders, online payments, app-related payments

-Identify certain grocery stores, government buildings and other places where drivers can add money to their toll accounts

-Add signs to affected neighborhoods identifying how to reach the two crossings without tolls, the Clark Memorial Bridge and the Interstate 64 Sherman Minton Bridge

(Below: Ohio River bridges in relation to low-income, minority areas. Courtesy: FHWA, INDOT, KYTC)

The bridges work includes the new spans and a redesigned Spaghetti Junction, where I-65, I-64 and I-71 meet near downtown Louisville.

The states say in their report that the project will improve low-income residents' access to the Clark Memorial Bridge, a toll-free crossing that is expected to see a
spike in traffic in the coming years as drivers avoid tolled routes

Residents and leaders in low-income areas said in surveys that residents may choose the Clark and the Minton to get across the river.

In fact, 79 percent of leaders in those neighborhoods said they believe their communities will use toll-free spans, and about ¼ of those surveyed believe people they represent will switch jobs, as a result of the bridge tolls. About half of the 38 leaders interviewed say their constituents will take fewer trips across the river.

The names of those surveyed weren't listed in the report by IQS Research. DeVone Holt, a Louisville consultant who served as a liaison with the leaders, didn't respond to a message on Wednesday.

A separate survey of 287 residents wasn't as dire.

About 30 percent of the residents interviewed said they didn't expect any changes in how they commute. A similar share said they planned to switch to bridges without tolls.

In all, about two-thirds of those surveyed said they expected no change in their lifestyle because of tolls.

The states considered, but eventually dismissed, discounts and toll credits for low-income drivers, saying those ideas aren't feasible due to “significant” administrative costs and “substantial technical, logistical, and enforcement challenges.”

For example, officials concluded that a toll discount program would cost $33 million and result in lost toll revenues – needed to pay off bonds – of up to $110 million. A tax credit would result in similar losses.

Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, welcomed the toll exemption for TARC but said the overall plan fails to provide much relief.

“It looks like a terribly disappointing lack of solutions for low-wage workers who are going to bear the brunt of these bridges' costs,” he said.

Hartman also criticized the lack of toll rebates for low-income drivers. He noted that the plan outlines steps to make transponders available – but doesn't offer any temporary toll credits.

“There's so much talk about the transponders in the proposal. …The only solution seems to be to make the transponders infinitely available to folks, who likely won't be able to afford to put money on them.”

Christine Harbeson, executive director of the Hope Southern Indiana ministry, said she was encouraged by the TARC exemption and the states' willingness to allow several users, such as carpoolers, share an account. She also said signs noting toll-free routes may help.

But Harbeson still has concerns that poor residents will be disproportionately affected. The minimum $20 balance for a toll account is a lot for someone “living day to day,” she said.

“We need the bridges, but it is going to hurt the lower-income people,” she said. “In one way or another, they're the ones that are going to pay for it.”

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