LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – RiverLink contractors failed to get billing details for hundreds of thousands of drivers from across North America last year, resulting in free rides on the Ohio River toll bridges and no chance to collect any of the money owed.
They spent months asking officials in two states – Iowa and Illinois – to identify the owners of vehicles that crossed the spans, but received no responses, according to data WDRB News obtained through public records requests.
In Iowa, for example, roughly 19,400 vehicles used the Louisville-area toll bridges enough times to warrant an invoice in 2018. That happens after two crossings, or after accruing at least $8 in tolls.
At the start of 2018, Illinois officials didn’t respond to nearly 22,000 requests for information about drivers who owed tolls. While they eventually began providing data, by the end of the year only about 27.5 percent of drivers had been identified.
Collecting from out-of-state drivers has been among the challenges of RiverLink, the privately operated toll system overseen by Kentucky and Indiana state governments. Hoosiers and Kentuckians can’t re-register their cars if they have unpaid tolls, but there are no penalties for other drivers.
Instead, officials must count on people to pay the tolls they owe. Of course, they have to be located first.
Now, in the first top-to-bottom evaluation of RiverLink, an adviser hired by Kentucky and Indiana recommends that project decision makers consider signing pacts with Illinois and other states to ensure that drivers can be identified and sent bills.
“I do think that it will happen,” said Megan McLain, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s innovative finance manager. “I think it will be a slow process. You’ve got a lot of different government agencies trying to work together on those.”
She said the agreements will be pursued with states with a high number of drivers who use RiverLink, as well as those that are providing little or no information.
The adviser, HNTB Corp., says in its evaluation that low response rates from other states lead to “forgone revenue and increased costs.” Besides Illinois, it recommends interstate agreements with Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee.
RiverLink operator Kapsch TrafficCom uses Milwaukee-based Duncan Solutions to contact departments of motor vehicles across the U.S. for vehicle owner information.
“Duncan has relationships with DMVs across the country, and the service helps to ensure compliance and reduce leakage. This helps to ensure all users are billed fairly,” RiverLink spokeswoman Mindy Peterson said in an email earlier this year.
A Duncan spokesman did not immediately return a phone message left Wednesday afternoon.
Kentucky and Indiana hired HNTB in late 2018 as its top adviser on RiverLink, agreeing to pay $2.2 million for the first six months of work. Within that time, the states required HNTB to complete a “risk assessment report” of the toll system.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet initially declined to release the report, which was finished in April, under the state’s open records law, saying it was a draft and considered a “living document.” The agency later provided it after WDRB News lodged an appeal with the Kentucky Attorney General’s office.
The HNTB analysis looked at Duncan’s success getting out-of-state vehicle owner information for just one month, January 2018. The 52 percent response rate was deemed a “medium risk to revenue, cost and/or public perception.”
The report doesn’t estimate how much revenue is being lost when drivers aren’t identified. If each attempt to look up a license plate’s owner represents one unique transaction, it’s likely RiverLink missed out on $2.8 million last year.
Even with any uncollected bills from out-of-state drivers, RiverLink is meeting its revenue goals.
HNTB recommended that RiverLink officials research individual vehicle lookup issues by state and work with Kapsch to understand why vehicle owners can’t be identified.
Iowa and Illinois officials did not return phone messages left Wednesday.
“Those states have, for various reasons, decided to not share that information or not share with information without certain requirements being met,” McLain said. “So, through our vendor we are trying to work through that.”
Overall, in 2018, about 89 percent of Kentucky and Indiana drivers who owed RiverLink bills were identified. The out-of-state rate was 68.5 percent.
Out-of-state drivers were located at a 67 percent rate during the first four months of 2019, according to the most recently available data.