Kentucky, Indiana select 'walk-up centers' for bridge toll issues
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Two sites have been selected as customer service centers for the Ohio River Bridges Project – part of the states’ effort to help low-income drivers who will be disproportionately affected by bridge tolls.
The “walk-up centers” will be located at 400 E. Main St. near Louisville Slugger Field and at Quartermaster Station along 10th Street in Jeffersonville, Ind., according to persons familiar with the real-estate negotiations. They will be staffed and operated by Kapsch TrafficCom, the company overseeing the bridges’ toll operations.
In April, Kentucky and Indiana released a report describing the centers as vital to people in low-income areas of Louisville and Southern Indiana. And a former adviser to the states recommended that local politicians and “stakeholders” have a role in reviewing and selecting the centers’ locations, according to documents reviewed by WDRB News.
But that didn’t happen. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Metro Council President David Tandy, whose district includes the Louisville site, said they weren’t notified of the locations before leases were signed.
Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore, a Republican, also said he wasn’t aware of the customer service center proposed for his city.
“It’s a concern, because other than you calling I am totally unaware of any of this,” Moore said Tuesday. “It’s kind of hard to be, you know, a mayor of a city when something like this is being planned and discussed and the first time I hear about it is coming from a reporter.”
A May report by Kapsch, obtained by WDRB News, suggested six sites on both sides of the river before narrowing it to two. The locations were ranked based on several factors, including proximity to Interstate 65 and the bridges, parking, nearby retail businesses and visibility from the street.
The preliminary locations were to go before the states' joint board -- a 4-person group made up of top Kentucky and Indiana transportation and finance officials -- for "review and approval," according to a request for proposal.
David Talley, innovative finance manager for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said members of the board were kept apprised of the process but didn't vote during a formal meeting.
Talley declined to respond directly to local officials' comments, but he said he believes the sites are "adequately convenient" for all users of the bridges. He noted that smartphone apps and a website also will help drivers with aspects of tolling.
"The walk-up center is one of several means for people to accomplish their tolling needs," Talley said.
Officials with the Indiana Department of Transportation and Indiana Finance Authority did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Indiana State Rep. Steve Stemler, a Democrat who represents Jeffersonville, said in an interview that the 10th Street site is "really a good location."
"It's my understanding that they are going to involve community input, and I look forward to them including me at some point in that discussion," he said.
After years of research, the states announced this spring how they plan to help ease the burden of tolls on low-income residents. One solution is establishing walk-up centers that provide "easy access” to those residents seeking transponders and questions about using the all-electronic tolling system under development.
Kapsch must equip the centers with chairs, counter and storage space, a waiting room and a hearing room, among other features, according to a request for proposal.
Tolls are set to start next year on three bridges -- the existing Kennedy Bridge downtown, a new span next to it and a bridge between Utica, Ind., and Prospect. Exact toll rates haven't been set, although initial rates range from $1 for frequent drivers to $12 for heavy trucks.
Bridges project consultants identified downtown and western Louisville and parts of Jeffersonville and Charlestown, Ind., as areas with clusters of residents who would be unevenly 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 many of those areas would see a 21 percent increase in cost per trip – compared with an 11 percent jump for drivers from other neighborhoods.
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 customer service center near Slugger Field is on the outer edge of the low-income neighborhoods in the Louisville area.
Tandy, a Democrat, declined to say whether he believes the site is adequate for serving low-income drivers. He said he would like more information and a "better understanding of what they're attempting to accomplish."
"While that may be one site, there may be others that would service the community in a better way," he said. "And, again, that goes to: It's always best to talk to council people on the front end because we're the boots on the ground. We know what's happening with our areas and our constituencies and can guide those types of decisions in a more effective way."
For his part, Fischer downplayed concerns that he was not made aware of the Louisville location.
"It's a big process and we've had our say throughout the whole thing," he said.
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