Ohio River toll bridges usher in new era for Kentuckiana busines - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Ohio River toll bridges usher in new era for Kentuckiana businesses

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CLARKSVILLE, Ind. (WDRB) – Summit Trucking had a business decision to make. The addition of tolls to the Ohio River Bridges Project meant big expenses for the company headquartered on Interstate 65 some six miles from the river.

Summit officials estimated they would pay roughly $750,000 a year in tolls – and more as inflation kicks in -- to deliver truckloads of consumer goods to customers based mainly in Kentucky.

So the company decided to buy a former elementary school in Bullitt County, Ky., and transform it into a space for trucks. Once the work is done, about four of every five trucks will be based in Kentucky, said Jodie Spencer, executive assistant to the company’s owner, David Summit.

The renovations are expected to cost $1.5 million – or about two years’ worth of tolls.

“It won’t take us very long to recoup that cost,” Spencer said.

Promoted as a way to ease congestion and improve access between the states, the $2.3 billion bridges project also has become directly linked with economic development and business growth on both sides of the river.

Besides the Lincoln Bridge, which now carries Interstate 65 North next to the Kennedy Bridge, work is almost complete on an upriver span connecting Indiana’s Lee Hamilton Highway and Kentucky’s Gene Snyder Freeway. Starting in December, tolls will be charged to cross all three – from $2 to $12.

Business interests pushed hard to break a stalemate over funding for the project, making the case in Frankfort for tolls and other revenue to help augment fuel taxes. The Bridges Coalition, whose members represented bourbon, logistics, manufacturing and other industries, spent $117,000 lobbying the Kentucky General Assembly from 2008 to 2011.

Not far from the new eastern bridge, 45 companies have settled at River Ridge Commerce Center in Charlestown, Ind., creating more than 7,000 jobs, according to the park’s development authority. Among them is an Amazon fulfillment center that opened in 2013.

But the case of Summit Trucking’s shows how the addition of tolls has caused companies to rethink day-to-day business decisions. And despite its support for the project, UPS now belongs to a national group that opposes tolls on existing interstates.

As construction winds down and three toll bridges prepare to open in the coming weeks, the Louisville region will start getting answers to questions years in the making:

-Will the addition of new roads attract companies, particularly to already built-up parts of Jefferson County?

-Will tolls cause people to eat, drink and shop on their side of the river, rather than pay to cross?

-Will consultants’ predictions for toll revenue fall short, prompting higher tolls – and, in turn, higher costs for drivers and companies?

For now, some businesses are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to tolling, said Deanna Epperly Karem, vice president for regional growth at Greater Louisville Inc., the Metro area chamber of commerce. GLI has been an advocate for the project for years.

“We have companies that are concerned about what that will do to their cost of business,” she said. “But then at the same time when you’re meeting with them they talk about the positive impact it’s going to have on getting their product out faster and more effectively.”

Click here for all of WDRB's Ohio River Bridges Project stories

While acknowledging the growth at River Ridge, Karem said it’s also important to note that Kentucky will benefit.

“There is enough to go around,” she said. “River Ridge is getting a lot of projects, a lot of big-box projects. But on the Kentucky side we’re also seeing a lot of projects here around the airport and because of UPS.”

“I think there are other counties around our community that will benefit that maybe haven’t seen it directly yet, but over the next two or three years they will have a transformation,” she said.

The yet-to-be-named East End Bridge is “a game changer” for the Metro Louisville area, particularly in the Clark County, Ind., cities of Charlestown and Jeffersonville, said Brent Dolen, industrial property specialist for Louisville's TRIO Commercial Property Group.

“On this side of the river I think we’re going to see some pretty fantastic growth as well,” Dolen said. “Communities like La Grange, Oldham County – I think they’re going to naturally benefit from this East End Bridge opening.”

But despite hefty spending on the project, there has been scant research into its potential economic benefits.

The only study that sought to gauge the bridges’ link to employment predicted that Indiana stood to gain the most jobs – 9,342, or roughly half of the overall estimated jobs in a five-county area by 2042. The report, commissioned by the Indiana Finance Authority, suggested that land use would drive most of the growth.

The employment estimates factored in the loss of about 1,500 jobs in the region due to tolling.

In Indiana, some small businesses long have feared that tolls might keep away customers. Wes Johnson, a co-owner of Buckhead Mountain Grill in Jeffersonville, was among those who was critical of tolls during a series of public meetings in the early 2010s.

As the bridges project nears completion, Johnson said he remains concerned.

“There’s no question that we anticipate that they’re going to impact our business in a negative way,” he said.

But Johnson believes some Hoosiers who might have traveled to Louisville to eat will choose to stay in Southern Indiana, and he anticipates the restaurant’s lunch crowds will be aided by the Clark Memorial Bridge staying toll-free.

For other businesses that cross the river, some relief from tolls could be on the way.

Indiana State Sen. Ron Grooms told WDRB News last month that he plans to file a bill in the 2017 legislature that would let Indiana businesses with offices in Clark or Floyd counties claim a tax credit for certain toll-related expenses, up to $5,000 a year. One Southern Indiana, the chamber of commerce for those counties, has supported such tax credits.

Even so, tolls are here to stay until at least 2053, when construction debt for the project is paid off; at that point state leaders will decide whether to keep them on the spans or take them off. (WDRB News reported last year that a financial plan for the project counts on tolls until 2068.)

In the meantime, the new roads are likely to help companies by slashing travel times and opening up opportunities for expansion, said Miguel Hampton, owner of the F5 Enterprises marketing firm and board member of the Kentuckiana Hispanic Business Council.

As for tolls, “We’re just going to have to overcome it,” he said, “and it becomes part of our lifestyle.”

Related Stories:

SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT | What you need to know before tolling starts on 3 Louisville bridges

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