Bridges officials approve plan aimed at reducing toll shock on l - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Bridges officials approve plan aimed at reducing toll shock on low-income residents

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky and Indiana moved closer to setting an overall policy for new toll bridges on Thursday, approving a plan meant to make it easier for low-income drivers to cross the Ohio River.

The Ohio River Bridges Project's tolling body unanimously accepted the plan, which exempts TARC buses from tolls and makes in-car transponders free to people living in impoverished neighborhoods.

The states promised other steps, such as establishing one “walk-up” center for managing toll accounts on each side of the river; allowing two vehicles to register under a single account; and erecting signs in some poorer neighborhoods showing how to get to toll-free bridges.

By widely distributing transponders, officials hope low-income drivers will pay the least expensive toll rates -- $1 per crossing.

“Those rates are only accessible to people who have transponders,” said David Waldner, director of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's division of environmental analysis.

RELATED: TARC exempted from tolls, discount tolls rejected

The six-member board approved the plan unanimously after asking no real questions about its content. For months, state and federal officials had declined to discuss the options under consideration; the Transportation Cabinet provided a copy of the plan to WDRB News Wednesday morning. WDRB.com posted a story online later that day.

While the states held several public meetings and took input on a draft plan in 2013, there was no public hearing for the final plan. A public comment period at Thursday's meeting occurred before a 22-minute presentation that detailed the report.

Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, prefaced her remarks before the board by saying what she knew about the plan she learned from a news account.

“This is going to have a significant impact on the ability of low-wage workers and people earning degrees to be able to fulfill their needs and … improve their economic position,” Hinko told the board.

In an interview, she criticized the tolling body's decision to hold the meeting far from areas most likely to be affected by tolls. (It was held at the Transportation Cabinet's office on Westport Road at 11 a.m.)

“They chose a time and a place where it would have taken a person all day to attend that meeting if they were using TARC. Now what does that say about how much they really understand? Or about the room itself, where they are so blind to the real issue that they don't even care … we were in a room without one person of color. They simply don't get it,” Hinko said.

The states chose not to pursue tax credits, based on income, for drivers who cross the river for work. Hinko had supported that approach, which some Kentucky legislators have unsuccessfully sought to pass into law.

Officials also dismissed discounts for low-income drivers, claiming those options presented too many administrative challenges. A toll discount program would cost $33 million and result in lost toll revenues of up to $110 million, according to estimates provided by the states. Similar losses were expected from a tax credit.

Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock defended the states' plan, saying in an interview that the tax credit and other rejected measures would have cost up to $2.5 million a year and the “amount of benefit from that was going to be very considerably less.”

But he said the main concern was the “complexity” of ensuring, for instance, that certain drivers qualified as low-income.

“The complexity of going through that and the cost associated with that complexity is really what were the overarching concerns,” Hancock said.

The two states have spent years on complex aspects of the $2.3 billion project – adding all-electronic tolls, undertaking multiple procurements and conducting numerous studies tracking license plates and origins of vehicles using Louisville-area roads.

But Hancock said the states' plan will provide “direct benefits” for low-income residents.

“They do not require anything extra of the community,” he said. “In fact, we're going to be out there peddling these (transponders) and working hard to make sure the community takes full advantage of them. So from our view, these were implementable solutions that bring the greatest benefit to the community.”

In particular, the states are focused on Louisville and Southern Indiana areas with high concentrations of low-income and minority residents. Those neighborhoods are expected to be hardest hit when tolls start late in 2016 or in early 2017, according to project consultants.

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

In surveys conducted last year, neighborhood leaders said they expect tolls to have some negative impacts.

In Indiana, 42 percent of leaders say they believe some residents will switch jobs because of the toll burden and 25 percent anticipate people will change doctors. About half of those leaders say their constituents will take fewer trips across the river.

Jim Stark, a deputy commissioner for the Indiana Department of Transportation, noted in an interview that previous economic analyses predicted job gains due to the project.

Asked about the survey's findings, he said, “We're always concerned about jobs.”

“I think that this will be something that we'll have to monitor as we go forward and it will always be something that will be part of our appreciation of … the effect that tolling has.”

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