February 5, 2008

About those bridge tolls …This idea should be a nonstarter

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s release last week of a study outlining plans for tolling all or some of the city’s bridges across the Ohio River — to finance part of the $4.1-billion Ohio River Bridges Project — should present a clear picture of a toll system for the bridges. Instead, it raises more questions. Nobody can argue that some sort of tolling system can pay for the entire bridges project. But how would it function, and who would pay for it? A plan to initiate toll collection for all of the bridges, referred to as Toll Alternative 1 in the study, includes I-64 and the Second Street Bridge, and would commence with the completion of the East End Bridge, projected in 2013. Of the eight presented in the study, this would obviously raise the most revenue and, for that reason, one can safely assume it the most popular among those desperate to finance the project. It calls for collecting tolls on all the bridges. That wouldn’t work. In the current construction scenario, the new downtown bridge and Spaghetti Junction would be under construction in 2013, and the only way to collect tolls for the I-65 bridge(s) would be to start collecting at some distance from the interchange. Planners apparently were aware of this problem, but the impression gained from their plan is that everyone passing through Spaghetti Junction, whether intending to use the bridge or not, would be subject to the toll. The most questionable tollbooth locations were at the Mellwood Avenue exit going west (they obviously weren’t going to use the bridge) and the River Road exit, which would ostensibly place a toll on all those downtown-bound commuters getting off the expressway from I-64 or I-71 — exits that are not even accessible for southbound I-65 commuters using the Kennedy Bridge. Although Toll Alternative 1 does furnish a diagram for tollbooths serving Spaghetti Junction, there is nothing to indicate how that might work for the Second Street Bridge. Tollbooths couldn’t be placed at the entrance on Main Street because they would undoubtedly hinder traffic flow, and placing tollbooths on the Indiana side of that bridge would seemingly be prohibitive. Who would pay?Since Spaghetti Junction is a wholly financed Kentucky project, one might assume that Kentucky residents would be responsible for the majority of the cost. However, we know that travelers from Southern Indiana to Louisville outnumber those going the opposite direction more than three-to-one. Without question, in any toll scenario, Indiana commuters would bear a disproportionate burden. In essence, they might be asked to pay for the new bridges twice — once with the taxes they pay to the state of Indiana, which would finance half the cost of each bridge in any case, and once more through tolls. Consider our commerce: Trucks pay two to three times the toll charged to cars, with 18-wheelers at the high end. This would place an extra burden on the large volume of UPS vehicles crossing the I-65 bridge daily, as well as the various suppliers to the major manufacturers in the area, Ford and GE, just to name a few. And consider for a moment the broader social context. We like to think of Kentuckiana as a community with an integrated economy. The purpose of bridges should be to strengthen ties between communities, not create financial and psychological barriers. Kentucky legislators like those who support Senate Bill 7 — sponsored by Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and endorsed by House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, the bill would allow Louisville to establish bridge tolls — may be forgiven if they do not recognize the wider implications of such a policy. Our local politicians should know better. The Mayor, Jefferson County legislators and Metro Council members should recognize a plan for tolls for what it is — a nonstarter. Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com