SUNDAY EDITION | Bus company, government agencies land toll-free - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Bus company, government agencies land toll-free RiverLink bridge crossings

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – During the first month of Ohio River bridge tolls in January, Miller Transportation estimates its buses amassed roughly $600 in charges while crossing between Kentucky and Indiana.

But unlike other businesses in the Louisville region, Miller won’t have to pay for those trips. In approving a 2015 transportation spending bill, Congress required toll road operators to treat private buses and public transit vehicles by the same rules.

Miller’s exemption is the result of Kentucky and Indiana’s decision to exempt the Transit Authority of River City from tolls – part of a plan to ease the financial burden on low-income residents that also included $20 million in public funds for TARC to expand bus service.

Across the U.S., private bus operators routinely help augment public transportation, said John Miller, the company’s president. Miller operates a school bus service, charters buses for tours and other over-the-road travel and provides daily service to cities in the Midwest.

“These people that I haul—they are the public too,” he said. “I mean, we’re in the exact same business.”

The six-member Ohio River Bridges Project tolling body finalized details last May for RiverLink, the all-electronic system on the Kennedy, Lincoln and Lewis and Clark bridges. It let TARC, along with police, fire and emergency vehicles, cross without paying so that first responders could choose the fastest routes over the river.

Since then, officials with both states have quietly expanded who can receive toll-free crossings by amending earlier rules voted on by the tolling body, according to documents obtained under public records requests.

Besides exemptions available to Miller and other over-the-road buses, the states agreed to apply a Kentucky law that for decades allowed National Guard members on reserve business to drive the state’s now defunct-toll roads free of charge. As a result, reservists can ask to have their toll charges on the Ohio River bridges waived, even though RiverLink doesn’t mention it on its website.

South of Louisville, Fort Knox officials aren’t tracking any impact of the toll bridges on the post or its personnel, mostly because the bridges are outside the typical commuting area, a spokesman said.  

State Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican from Elizabethtown, said he’s not heard any discussion of lawmakers adding more toll exemptions for military members. The law allowing the National Guard members dates from the 1940s.

“Would I be willing to consider it? Yes,” said Moore, chairman of the House committee on veterans, military affairs and public protection. “But has that even come on the radar screen? No.”

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet records show that 27 local, state and federal agencies have been made exempt from tolls. In addition to police cars, fire trucks and ambulances, vehicles registered to the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, the Clark County Health Department, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Postal Inspection Service are among those that can cross the bridges without paying.

RiverLink spokeswoman Mindy Peterson said in an e-mail that she wasn’t aware of any projections of lost toll revenue from the exemptions, but “it’s expected to be minimal.”

TARC’s buses crossed the Ohio River 4,304 times last year on Interstate 65, which now includes two toll spans. That amounts to about 8 percent of all of its crossings.

WDRB News found no instances of public employees who use or plan to drive the toll-free vehicles while commuting to work. Instead, various officials said the vehicles are meant for emergency purposes only.

That’s the case with the airport authority, which operates Louisville International Airport and could provide aircraft rescue and firefighting aid to Southern Indiana, spokeswoman Stephanie Smith said. The exemption covers nine public safety vehicles but no employee cars, she said.

The Clark County Health Department sought toll-free crossings for some of its vehicles because employees respond to crashes that pose a threat to public health, such as an overturned gasoline tanker, said Doug Bentfield, an environmental health specialist. Workers who live in Kentucky will take home those vehicles when they are on-call every few weeks, he said.

“We respond to fuel incidents, fuel spills and wrecks on (Interstate) 65 and whatnot. So with those staff members having to go back and forth for those reasons we also applied for an exemption,” he said.

Norton Children’s Hospital secured exemptions for four ambulances it uses to shuttle infants and children to Louisville. Norton keeps a plane at Clark Regional Airport in Sellersburg, Ind., and makes hundreds of trip across the river each year, said Pennie Maus-Granholm, manager of the hospital’s Just For Kids transport team.

“We cross so many times, and we incur that cost to our patients,” she said. “So we actually don’t want to put that forward to our patients.”

Without toll booths, RiverLink relies on cameras and antennae near the bridges to record license plates or scan transponders. Tolls are charged by debiting pre-paid accounts or sending bills to drivers.

For almost all RiverLink accounts, drivers and businesses are required to put up money ahead of time. The minimum balance is at least $20 for commercial and personal accounts. But accounts for government agencies don’t need to be prepaid.   

The Transportation Cabinet initially denied a request by WDRB News for all applications for government accounts and records of how exactly the exemptions were granted. It later agreed to provide the applications and a list of accounts but did not turn over documents related to approvals.

The list indicates that 95 agencies have received government accounts, including Louisville Metro government, the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Transportation Security Administration. In addition, two nonprofit organizations were approved for the accounts.

Officials with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Indiana Department of Transportation ultimately decide whether to approve an application, Peterson said.

At Miller Transportation, which records show has been exempted from tolls, the company still is waiting on getting a credit on its RiverLink account for the crossings that should be free.

But for now, John Miller said he’s glad the bridges project is finished, especially because some of the construction detours “threw us for a loop a couple of times.”

Besides the new Lincoln Bridge downtown, he said the Lewis and Clark Bridge that connects eastern Jefferson and Clark counties has led to shorter trip times.

“I actually think the traffic has been reduced,” he said.

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