BRIDGES ROUNDUP | Consultant 'difficulties,' walk-up sites chosen, contract extensions

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – There's more than construction happening on the Ohio River Bridges Project. As visible work on the $2.3 billion venture continues, other action is unfolding behind the scenes on both sides of the river.

Here's a snapshot of recent developments:

Trouble with eTrans?: In February, Kentucky and Indiana selected eTrans KY Inc. to advise the states on tolling issues. In essence, eTrans is the liaison between the states and Kapsch TrafficCom IVHS, which will install, oversee and manage the all-electronic toll system.

eTrans also is responsible for testing the system, which will track drivers as they cross the river on Interstate 65 and a new upriver bridge, and ensuring that it works properly.

The firm is the states' second adviser. It succeeded Computer Aid Inc., which was dismissed after it was linked to a conflict-of-interest allegation that scuttled the states' first choice of a toll system operator – and added months of delay.

Twice in recent months, the states' top decision making panel – the joint board -- had scheduled meetings that referenced eTrans in their agendas. Both meetings were eventually canceled, and officials gave little explanation.

On Friday, the states announced the joint board is set to meet Tuesday in Jeffersonville, Ind., to discuss an “update” to its toll adviser.

Earlier this week, Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock acknowledged the state is having problems with eTrans, which got a $3.5 million, one-year contract earlier this year. Kentucky, which procured the contract on behalf of both states, can extend the deal to 2020.

Hancock didn't elaborate on specifics, but said: “We are working with eTrans. We're trying to figure out if there's a way that we can make sure we're on the same page and work together. … But I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that we're having some difficulties.”

Asked why the previous meetings were canceled, he said, “What you've seen is evidence that we've been working hard behind the scenes trying to figure out: Is there a way to keep things rolling?”

Could the states be planning to remove eTrans?

“That's not out of the question,” Hancock said. “We haven't made that decision in full yet.”

In an email, Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield said “we do not have anything to add to what Secretary Hancock shared with you….”

In May, WDRB News made a public records request for correspondence between eTrans and Kentucky transportation officials regarding the company's performance. The Cabinet refused to turn over the records, saying they are “preliminary pending a decision by the Joint Board,” according to the agency's records custodian.

Daryl Fleming, president of The eTrans Group, declined to comment Friday, saying he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Walk-up centers: Last month, the states approved a plan that aims to lessen the financial sting and other logistical roadblocks from tolling on the region's low-income residents.

A key part of the plan required Kapsch to establish one office, or “walk-up” center, on each side of the river “where community members can interact directly and conveniently” with toll officials, according to the report.

The low-income areas identified in the states' report stretch across of Louisville and Southern Indiana. For instance, they include pockets of Charlestown, Ind., and Jeffersonville, Ind. – cities that are both in Clark County but miles apart.

Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said the locations for the centers have been selected, but no leases have been signed. He would only say that are “reasonably close to the river.”

“We haven't publicly identified the sites because you want to retain some bargaining power with these things,” Wolfe said.

He said it “won't be terribly long” before the sites are made public.

“This isn't being done willy nilly,” Wolfe said. “There is considerable thought that has been and is being put into this to have locations that are as accessible as they possibly can be to as many people as possible.”

The states' report came after interviews with dozens of people, including those representing neighborhoods and residents who might be disproportionately affected by tolls.

Among those interviewed was Edgardo Mansilla, executive director of the Americana Community Center in South Louisville. Mansilla told WDRB News that he doesn't believe two walk-up locations for the entire region are enough.

“I would prefer more because the number of cars and the number of people who will be impacted,” he said.

Ideally, he said, there would be “at least one or two more on the Louisville side because we have more people living here.”

Contract renewals: Two key bridge contracts are set to be renewed next week, when the Kentucky General Assembly's government contract review committee meets Tuesday in Frankfort.

Community Transportation Solutions of Louisville is set to see a $1.1 million increase, bringing its total award to $48.2 million. The group has been a project consultant for years, managing and overseeing design and other work.

HDR Engineering Inc. of Lexington would get a $19.8 million extension, covering the fiscal year that starts July 1 and additional payments for this year, according to KYTC. The company's total contract would climb to $70.4 million.

HDR audits work on the Kentucky side of the upriver span between Prospect, Ky., and Utica, Ind., and does construction oversight on the downtown bridge being built.

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