I-65 toll bridges

The I-65 RiverLink toll bridges in downtown Louisville. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer is pushing for federal dollars to help ease RiverLink toll costs to local drivers. Across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Ind., Mayor Mike Moore says he agrees “100 percent.”

The governors of Kentucky and Ohio say their states plan to apply for $2 billion in grants from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to pay for a toll-free companion span near the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Cincinnati and northern Kentucky.

Fischer tweeted Tuesday night that the governors’ announcement this week called attention to the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, which added two new spans in Louisville. For years, Kentucky leaders insisted that money from fuel taxes alone was not enough to pay for the state’s share of the Louisville project and other large megaprojects.

The solution to fill the gap: Tolls.

“I'd like to see the Kentucky legislature and Governor Beshear, (Indiana) Gov. Holcomb and the Indiana legislature direct some federal infrastructure dollars to the Ohio River bridge project as well so we can take the burden off of the hardworking families here and businesses in Louisville and southern Indiana. They certainly deserve that,” Fischer said on Twitter.

He told WDRB News in an interview Wednesday that his proposal is a “matter of fairness.”

“Louisville and southern Indiana should not be penalized for believing in themselves and believing and growing our economy back in the day,” he said.

Asked about Fischer’s proposal, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters Thursday that “it's certainly something we're going to analyze. It's a very natural question to ask.”

But he also noted that Louisville will see “significant” funds from the new federal law and suggested that putting money toward RiverLink could mean the city missing out on other investments.

“We're going to have to look at whether what Mayor Fischer is suggesting is even allowed under the federal infrastructure act,” he said. “It's certainly aimed at new projects and improvements, but that doesn't mean something like this won't be possible.”

A statement from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet it looks forward to "determining all possible uses of the federal dollars but have been advised they will come with certain restrictions. We will be evaluating the options with the USDOT when their guidance is issued in the coming months."

Moore, the Jeffersonville mayor, said he supports Fischer’s idea “100 percent,” especially given Louisville’s role as the “pivotal city” in Kentucky. The bridges also have helped Jeffersonville boom, especially at the River Ridge Commerce Center near the Lewis and Clark Bridge, he added.

If there are new federal dollars, he said, why not spend some to pay off RiverLink toll debt?

“I cannot see a smarter investment than to eliminate the tolls because that extra money that the residents on both sides of the river are paying now – let’s put that money back in their pocket,” Moore said. “They’re going to spend it back in the economy.”

Holcomb’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Tolls began in late 2016 on the RiverLink crossings -- the Interstate 65 John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln spans and the upriver Lewis and Clark Bridge. Indiana and Kentucky split the toll revenues and use them for various obligations, including maintenance costs for the bridges.

Tolls are to remain in place until at least 2053. Officials from both states have not said if the fees will be removed once the construction debt is paid off.

Beshear and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday their states will pursue $2 billion for the Brent Spence project, which calls for a new bridge, repairs to the existing I-71/75 span and other work on approach roads.

The federal bill that Congress passed last year set aside $39 billion for bridge projects, as well as $17.5 billion in national grants for large projects.

Kentucky is expected to receive $4.3 billion in funds based on federal formulas, according to previous U.S. Department of Transportation estimates.  

This story may be updated.

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