SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky-Indiana oversight board fails to hold meetings after RiverLink tolls begin
Some open government experts say the lack of meetings is troubling, especially because the board is responsible for a project with such a broad impact.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After spending $2.3 billion on the largest transportation project in the Louisville region’s history, Kentucky and Indiana launched a high-speed tolling network over the Ohio River late last year.
Yet the four-person group of public officials ultimately in charge of overseeing the project has not held a meeting this year – a violation of its own bylaws – because a spokesperson says they have no "action items" to discuss.
Made up of top finance and transportation officials in both states, the Kentucky-Indiana Joint Board was established in 2012 to provide “long-term oversight and management responsibility” of the bridges project. A year later, it pledged in its bylaws to meet at least once every three months.
That hasn't happened. Asked to explain why the board hasn’t met, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet called the bylaws a “framework,” and officials in both states insist those rules are not a ”statutory requirement.”
But some open government experts say the lack of meetings is troubling, especially because the board is responsible for a project with such a broad impact.
“I can see the challenges of holding board meetings comprised of officials from two states, but as a board member you are a representative of the public interests,” said Dwight V. Denison, professor of public and nonprofit finance at the University of Kentucky’s Martin School of Public Policy and Administration.
In an email, Denison said it would be difficult to fulfill that public responsibility without meeting as a board.
“Yes, some oversight can be managed through email, phone calls and financial reports, but often discussion is necessary to vet concerns and address problems,” he said.
Since organizing in 2013, the joint board has made key decisions on the project that added the Interstate 65 Abraham Lincoln Bridge, strengthened the adjacent John F. Kennedy Bridge, built the upriver Lewis and Clark Bridge and rebuilt the downtown Spaghetti Junction interchange.
In 2015, the board chose Kapsch TrafficCom to operate the toll system now known as RiverLink on the Kennedy, Lincoln and Lewis and Clark spans. It hired – and later fired – a tolling adviser that eventually settled a lawsuit over the ouster for $650,000.
It also has been one outlet for public comment. In 2015, for example, a member of the Kentucky Motorcycle Association addressed the board about toll rates for motorcycles.
There’s no reason for a public board to hold unnecessary meetings, said Stephen Larrick, local government lead for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C. organization that advocates for government transparency.
But because those meetings have allowed public comment in the past, the joint board's failure to meet has removed direct access to decision makers, he said.
“When you take away the platform for public feedback, you take away public feedback and ultimately public accountability,” Larrick said.
It’s also a “red flag” that the bi-state board has failed to follow its own bylaws, said Zachary Baiel, president of the nonprofit Indiana Coalition for Open Government.
“First and foremost, any board that is not following broad strokes within their own bylaws deserves some extra scrutiny from the public,” he said.
Greg Thomas, the Kentucky’s Transportation Cabinet Secretary, is one of the joint board’s four members. A cabinet spokeswoman, Naitore Djigbenou, issued a statement that said state employees “handle the day-to-day administration of the tolling system allowing the Joint Board to meet as business needs demand.”
“The bi-state joint board has not met this year, due to no agenda items presented to discuss,” Stephanie McFarland, a public relations consultant who represents the Indiana Finance Authority, said in an email. Dan Huge, Indiana’s public finance director, is a member of the joint board.
McFarland said “it's important to note … the bylaws are not a statutory requirement, and are amendable. However, much of the joint-board's charge was focused on procurement, finance, development and construction of the bridges project -- and that portion is complete.”
(The bylaws have not been amended to remove the quarterly meeting requirement.)
Other members include William Landrum, Secretary of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, and Tony McClellan, deputy commissioner in the Indiana Department of Transportation’s Seymour office.
Landrum’s office did not respond to a request for comment. McClellan said an INDOT spokesman would provide a statement, but that did not happen.
Unlike some regions of the U.S., Kentucky and Indiana don’t have a centralized, bi-state authority or other organization solely in charge of the toll project. The Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, once envisioned for that role, was disbanded about five years ago.
Instead, the states assembled a patchwork of panels, government employees and private consultants under various contracts and subcontracts to manage the tolling aspect of the multi-billion dollar project.
The ultimate oversight body for the RiverLink system, however, is the joint board.
“I would like to know why meetings have not been taking place," said Indiana state Rep. Ed Clere, a Republican from New Albany. Clere said his main focus has been on efforts to ensure that drivers aren’t evading tolls by covering up their license plates, but he said he plans to look into the joint board's lack of meetings.
“It’s a concern to me that they’re not meeting because we expect them to meet,” said Kentucky state Rep. Steve Riggs, a Democrat from Louisville. “I mean, the purpose of the board is to oversee -- and if they’re not meeting, then they’re derelict in their duty.”
Kentucky and Indiana lawmakers have been briefed on the bridges project in recent weeks. Overall, revenue projections are on track to meet estimates, said Megan McLain, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s innovative finance manager.
A six-member tolling body, which is required to meet once a year and is responsible for setting toll rates, has not met so far this year. It last met in November 2016.
But other boards meant to provide financial oversight of the project also have received updates, officials said.
The Indiana Finance Authority board has gotten updates on tolling in executive sessions that are closed to the public, McFarland said.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky panel responsible for paying back the state’s construction debt has not formally met this year after meeting multiple times annually in prior years.
The Kentucky Public Transportation Infrastructure Authority held one meeting in May, but it did not attract a quorum of members. A meeting scheduled for August was canceled.
A bill approved in the Kentucky General Assembly earlier this year removed a requirement that the authority meet quarterly.
Several of the authority’s board members who spoke with WDRB News said they believe they have been kept informed.
“Now that that bridge is finished, it’s not as critical to meet when we don’t have an item that needs approval or disapproval or whatever,” said Steve Austin, the mayor of Henderson, Ky. “I’m satisfied that those folks are giving us information that we need and I don’t have any problem whatsoever finding out anything I need to know.”
Glenn Mitchell, another board member, said the cancellation of the August meeting shouldn’t be interpreted as “a sign of us not being kept in the loop.”
“I think most of us that are members of the committee, we keep up with the project through you guys’ reports, the news reports,” he said. “And it seems like the numbers are coming in very well.”