LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The tolling consultant fired from the Ohio River Bridges Project in June claims Kentucky and Indiana transportation officials “deliberately and persistently interfered” with its contract, including trying to influence hiring decisions.

The eTrans Group of Johns Creek, Ga., also accuses the states of fabricating reasons for pulling the $3.5 million contract – saying the company’s supposed failures are “inconsistent with the facts and/or not requirements” of the agreement.

eTrans made the allegations in a July 14 letter formally protesting the cancellation of the contract. The letter, addressed to Kentucky Finance Secretary Lori Flanery, was obtained by WDRB News.

The Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet acknowledged receiving a “contract dispute” but declined to release documents related to it, such as the eTrans letter.

The agency cited an exemption in the state’s open records law that allows “preliminary” documents to be withheld from public disclosure; WDRB has appealed that decision to Attorney General Jack Conway’s office.

The Finance Cabinet hasn’t yet ruled on the dispute, spokeswoman Pamela Trautner said in an email.

eTrans was fired June 9 at a meeting of the Kentucky-Indiana Joint Board, the main decision-making body for the bridges project. The board’s four members include the top transportation and finance officials of both states – including Flanery, although she was not present for the June vote.

That action came six weeks after the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which hired eTrans on behalf of both states, accused the company of defaulting on the contract.

But eTrans President Daryl Fleming wrote to Flanery that eTrans was “unjustly criticized for conducting the work it was required to do under its Contract.”

Fleming’s letter responds point-by-point to claims made by the Transportation Cabinet, including that the company didn’t have enough tolling expertise. The people on the eTrans team had at least 145 years of toll-related work, according to Fleming’s estimates – “an experience and knowledge base difficult to match in the toll industry,” he wrote.

Fleming also contends in the letter that eTrans “provided all major deliverables” on time and in line with industry standards; negotiated a solution to a pavement issue that should help the states avoid $2 million in change orders; and made “robust and extensive” modifications to bridges project documents.

On the surface, the eTrans contract represents a mostly behind-the-scenes and miniscule part of the $2.3 billion bridges project. By comparison, Kentucky is paying Walsh Construction $860 million to build a new downtown bridge and interchange in Louisville.

But eTrans was the states’ watchdog on an all-electronic toll system whose success is vital to paying off the new bridges’ construction debt. If toll revenues don’t come in as expected, toll rates could be raised to ensure the states keep up with payments.

Plans call for tolls to start next year on the existing Interstate 65 Kennedy Bridge and new crossings downtown and upriver between Prospect, Ky., and Utica, Ind.

eTrans’ job was to ensure the system works correctly and monitor the work of Kapsch TrafficCom, which was hired to install equipment and collect revenue from drivers.

eTrans was the second company to act as toll adviser to the states on the bridges project. It succeeded Computer Aid Inc., which was replaced following conflict-of-interest allegations.

But shortly after eTrans started its work, representatives of the two states “increasingly pressured” the company to hire a former Computer Aid employee, Fleming wrote to Flanery. eTrans resisted, citing the employee’s connection to Computer Aid and work experience that wasn’t as “extensive” as other eTrans team members.

Adding the employee would have been “inappropriate,” Fleming wrote.

William E. Johnson, a Frankfort attorney representing eTrans, did not return a call for comment.

The Transportation Cabinet declined to comment on Fleming’s letter. KYTC spokesman Chuck Wolfe referred a reporter to the state’s correspondence with eTrans prior to the June 9 vote.

Those documents, obtained under a public records request, include an April 28 letter in which David Talley, the Transportation Cabinet’s innovative finance manager, wrote to Fleming that eTrans “has failed to provide competent leadership.”

Among other accusations, Talley claimed eTrans canceled meetings for personal reasons, failed to meet deadlines and didn’t grasp basic information about the project.

“The contractor’s failure to engage and begin performing under the contract guidelines has impacted the project timetable and if allowed to continue uncorrected, will seriously undermine the tolling aspects” of the project, the KYTC letter claims.

Wolfe said the correspondence “perfectly describes our reasons for terminating the contact.”

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