SUNDAY EDITION | Job toll? Questions swirl over bridge work heading to Texas
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When Kentucky and Indiana start charging drivers to cross the Ohio River next year, a cadre of behind-the-scenes workers will oversee toll transactions on three bridges. It’s estimated that more than 110,000 vehicles will use those spans each day.
But the Louisville area won’t reap the entire economic benefit from those jobs – a concern raised by an ex-consultant on the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, documents show.
Data collection would occur in Austin, Texas. That’s also the proposed site of an office processing toll transactions and a customer service center.
The jobs are bound for Texas as a result of a contract the states awarded to Kapsch TrafficCom, the company in charge of the cash-free, electronic system between Louisville and Clark County, Ind. Kapsch’s main subcontractor is Austin-based Municipal Services Bureau, or MSB.
When Kapsch bid on the contract, it suggested making MSB’s Austin offices the home of a customer service center where workers will manage toll accounts, process violations and ensure that drivers are charged the correct tolls, among other tasks. Such a move “leverages an existing facility and provides the project with both schedule and cost benefits,” Kapsch said in its proposal.
But a former consultant on the bridges project warned Kentucky and Indiana officials earlier this year of potential blowback from those jobs not being created in the Louisville area, according to documents obtained by WDRB News. The documents don’t provide job estimates.
The eTrans Group told representatives of the Kentucky-Indiana joint board – the project’s top decision-making body – that it “should be prepared for negative public reaction to the fact that many of the Kapsch/MSB (especially well paying) jobs will be in Texas,” the documents show.
In fact, state Rep. Steve Riggs of Louisville raised the issue at a legislative committee meeting last week, pressing state officials on how many positions will be created.
“You don’t need to collect toll money from Kentucky and Indiana people and then send the jobs of doing that to Texas,” he said in an interview after the meeting Tuesday in Sparta, Ky.
While the states have signed a contract with Kapsch, Riggs said lawmakers could pass a bill requiring the work remain in the local area.
But toll experts say it’s wise to use established operations, such as the Texas facilities proposed by Kapsch.
“If there’s no institutional history or experience with handling that, it could be a disaster to try to set it up from scratch,” said Stephen Reich, program director at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.
‘Get the right people on board’
The concerns raised by eTrans were made in a letter the company prepared in a contract dispute with the Kentucky Finance Cabinet. eTrans has appealed its June firing as toll adviser, a role in which it oversaw the work of Kapsch on behalf of both states.
Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock said he is not aware of eTrans’ warnings about any fallout from jobs in Texas.
Nor is he “personally aware” of how many employees will work on the project in Texas, he said.
“My biggest concern is that we get the right people on board to do the right things to make sure that the people of the metropolitan Louisville area get a quality product that delivers the service that we all want to help us collect the tolls,” he said.
Hancock serves on the joint board, which includes the most powerful transportation and finance officials in both states. Also on the board are Kentucky Finance Secretary Lori Flanery; Dennis Bassett, Indiana’s public finance director; and Indiana Transportation Commissioner Brandye Hendrickson.
Flanery isn’t aware of the eTrans comments, a spokeswoman said.
Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield declined to say whether Bassett and Hendrickson know about eTrans’ claims. In an email, he noted that the joint board selected Kapsch before the two Indiana officials were appointed.
But Wingfield questioned the accuracy of the eTrans claims, saying in his statement that the “higher-paying Kapsch management and technician jobs will be based in Jeffersonville.” He did not elaborate or respond to a follow-up question.
The Indiana Finance Authority selected Austria-based Kapsch earlier this year under a $41.5 million contract on behalf of both states. The seven-year deal allows the company, whose North American operations are in McLean, Va., to install toll gantries, where equipment will read license plates and scan transponders; operate a customer service center; and maintain the toll roads.
Kapsch sales director Don Hicks declined to comment. Bruce Cummings, MSB’s chief executive officer, did not return a phone message.
Mindy Peterson, a bridges project spokeswoman, said toll-related job numbers won’t be finalized until next year.
“Staffing levels have not been determined, so we do not even have preliminary numbers,” she said.
The Kapsch proposal sheds light on Texas’ role in monitoring and collecting tolls on bridges some 1,000 miles away -- new spans being built downtown and near Utica, Ind., as well as the Interstate 65 Kennedy Bridge.
Austin will have a “back office” toll operations center and house tolling databases. A maintenance team that monitors the “functionality and performance of all system elements on the roadside” will be based in Irving, Texas.
It’s unclear, however, how many workers will do those jobs.
Kapsch expects it will cost $21.4 million to operate and maintain the Texas-based customer service center over the life of the deal, according to a heavily-redacted contract provided by the Indiana Finance Authority. Other costs – such as $2.4 million related to information technology at the “back office” center – push the total price tag of running the toll-collection system to $28.9 million.
Kapsch also plans to have two “walk-up” centers near the bridges – one in downtown Louisville near Slugger Field and one in Jeffersonville, Ind. Despite the emphasis on the Lone Star State in contract documents, Peterson said the customer service center in Texas will work in tandem with the Louisville-area locations.
“When the need arises, they will be using the call center in Texas in support of what they’re doing here,” she said.
Job numbers elusive
Contract documents show 25 positions involved in toll collection, but those aren’t explicitly for daily toll operations. Officials from both states declined opportunities to discuss specific figures.
But as long as Kapsch is accurate in its toll collections, the company “can use as many or as few people as they like, more or less technology,” said David Talley, innovative finance manager for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Speaking at last week’s meeting of the Kentucky legislature’s interim transportation committee, Talley said Kapsch will have “folks based outside of Kentucky, will have employees in Kentucky and will have employees in Indiana.” The ultimate goal, he said, is to create an efficient toll-collection system.
Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Prospect and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he would like to know that some jobs will remain in the region, “but I don’t know that we need to micromanage this situation.”
By the end of 2015, Kapsch’s subcontractor MSB is expected to handle more than 850,000 toll transactions per day, according to the Kapsch proposal. MSB provides support services in Austin for seven toll systems, including two in Florida and one in Puerto Rico, the proposal says.
It’s common for toll-related jobs to be located far away from all-electronic toll roads, Neil Gray, government affairs director at the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association, said in an email.
“Basically the toll operator is already very anxious about opening day operational success and if they can minimize the risk of customer service glitches and/or revenue loss that would be a very attractive option,” he said.
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