HENDERSON, Ky. (WDRB) – For nearly two decades, residents and business leaders have debated a new bridge over the river. They’ve packed meetings, submitted comments and written letters. Now, as the project moves closer to reality, the conventional wisdom is it won’t be built without tolls.
Sound familiar? This isn’t Louisville. It’s Henderson, pop. 28,859.
This western Kentucky city and its larger neighbor across the Ohio River, Evansville, Ind., are coming to terms with tolls as a way to fund a long-anticipated Interstate 69 span, part of a corridor that one day could run from Canada to Mexico.
“Tolls are the way things get built now,” Henderson County Judge-Executive Brad Schneider said. “The era of the Eisenhower interstate system where the federal government paid for everything is long gone.”
Some three hours upriver, a plan to replace the heavily traveled I-71/I-75 Brent Spence Bridge between Covington, Ky., and Cincinnati has grinded along for years with little to show for it. In 2016, Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill that essentially outlawed tolls on the bridge or any other interstate connection with Ohio.
But Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who signed that bill into law, told reporters last month that federal funds aren’t enough to pay for the work and said he believes he and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine can solve the impasse. “There's a good likelihood that tolling will be part of that solution,” Bevin said in January, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Has to be.”
Just over a generation ago, tolls were common on Kentucky’s rural parkway system and even on a stretch of Interstate 65 between Louisville and Elizabethtown. Workers in toll booths collected cash and change.
In late 2006, then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher marked the end of an era when he lifted tolls on the Audubon and Natcher parkways in western Kentucky. And, just like that, there were no toll roads in the state.
But tolls have made a comeback in the financing approaches for Kentucky’s biggest highway projects, already in place in Louisville and in the mix for other bridges with Indiana and Ohio.
Kentucky is eyeing tolls as the state’s transportation funding is at a crossroads. Lower fuel prices and more efficient vehicles have left the road fund with less money than in the past, while the federal highway fund that sends dollars back to the states is on pace to run dry in 2021.
Drivers will be paying to cross the RiverLink bridges between Louisville and Clark County, Ind., for decades to come, part of a financing plan that tapped the fees to cover at least half of the $2.3 billion construction price tag and other costs.
Kentucky and Indiana state governments also are working together on the I-69 crossing between Henderson and Evansville, where they anticipate tolls could cover 20 percent to 40 percent of upfront costs on the estimated $1.5 billion project.
And even though northern Kentucky lawmakers of both parties have steadfastly opposed charging drivers to cross between Ohio and Kentucky, the states’ governors are keeping tolls alive as a funding option.
Northern Kentucky residents are unlikely to back tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge without first having an eastern bypass, said Rep. Sal Santoro, R-Florence, chairman of the Kentucky House Budget Review Subcommittee on Transportation.
He also suggested that any tolls between the two states would need a frequent-crossing discount similar to that used on Louisville’s RiverLink bridges.
“If we can come up with a formula that there will be a drastic cut in the toll cost, they would benefit from it,” he said. “Until then, it’s going to be a hard push for us in northern Kentucky because we have so many neighbors that just go daily to Cincinnati.”
Santoro is the chief sponsor of a bill in the state legislature to hike Kentucky’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. Its supporters say the increase is needed to cope with a growing list of road building, maintenance and repair projects across the state. The extra funds – possibly more than $430 million annually – would help offset the loss of federal credits next year.
Meanwhile, Indiana legislators raised the state’s gas tax in 2017, and DeWine is seeking to do the same in Ohio.
Raising gas taxes are a more efficient way to fund transportation needs, said Stephanie Kane, communications director for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates. Tolls typically result in increased traffic on other routes, she said, noting that such diversion has happened in Louisville.
“It is a sad state of affairs that policy makers feel that they’re being backed into the corner on tolls, because tolls have so many negative impacts,” Kane said. “They really should be removed from the conversation completely.”
Tolls create other costs, such as building gantries and infrastructure for high-speed tolling systems that don’t have tollbooths.
“You need to operate them and maintain them – and so tolls siphon so much money away from their intended purpose, which is road repair and improvements. Tolls are the least efficient and most harmful option available for funding infrastructure,” she said.
As tolls are floated for other parts of Kentucky, some groups worry that techniques already in place in Louisville could be copied. Case in point: Charging tractor trailers and other large trucks the highest rates but not giving local carriers a discount for frequent trips.
RiverLink allows passenger cars that cross 40 times in a month to get 50 percent off the $2.05 per-trip rate, while large trucks must pay $10.25 to $12.30 each time they cross.
“They are not offering any kind of discount program as they are for personal vehicles,” said Melissa Zink, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Trucking Association. “That’s where we have an issue.”
Zink said her organization backs a higher gas tax in Kentucky. “We understand things need to get done. Is tolling the ideal way? No, it’s not.”
But in Henderson and Evansville, the opposition to tolls that dogged Louisville’s bridges is largely absent. Local business and political leaders are pushing for tolls to be part of a funding plan for the new I-69 crossing, a project that in its current form would keep one of two local U.S. 41 bridges that span the Ohio River.
Schneider, the Henderson County judge-executive, said residents saw the necessity of tolls on the new crossing early on.
“We never had this conversation that they’re having in northern Kentucky: ‘Tolling is evil. It’s a de facto tax and the government built the interstate, they should fix the interstate,’” he said. “We’ve never had anything here in western Kentucky that we didn’t have to help pay for. We have a culture of paying for our stuff.”
For now, Kentucky and Indiana would build the I-69 bridge and keep one of the U.S. 41 crossings, although the states haven’t decided whether the local-access bridge would be tolled or not. Schneider said people in the area are worried about possibly losing a free route.
But having an interstate highway would be a “game changer for western Kentucky,” he said.
“We want to compete even more and give outside companies, outside industries more reason to come to Kentucky,” he said. “And interstate access is vital.”
The U.S. government is expected to release a record of decision for the project this fall, a move that would choose the route and essentially prepare the way for financing, land purchases and construction.
Planners also would likely look to Louisville, where the start of tolls was marked by an understaffed customer service operation and occasional cases of incorrect bills. Overall, however, the RiverLink bridges are taking in more money than projected.
In fact, the states already are using C2 Strategic Communications to oversee public relations for the I-69 crossing. The company handles the same role for RiverLink.
“Certainly there are lessons there on how do you roll it out, what conversations do you have?” C2 spokeswoman Mindy Peterson said. “How many folks do you need available to answer those calls in the early going of the tolling process? So I think there are lessons to be learned there.”
In meetings in Henderson and Evansville, the Louisville bridges are often cited as an example of efficient high-speed tolling, said Niles Rosenquist, an Evansville resident who has raised concerns about tolls. But he points out that two of the five crossings in the Louisville area are toll-free.
He said many view the possibility of tolls on U.S. 41 as “double taxation” for a road that’s already been paid for, and they fear having no free route across the Ohio River between Henderson and Evansville.
“The tolling would impact working people, lower-income people much more,” Rosenquist said during a visit to Henderson’s John James Audubon State Park last week. “I come over here once a month. I could pay three bucks.
“It may be a nuisance but it wouldn’t be a problem for me. But of course it’s the working people, the people who have to commute every day – that’s the burden.”