By JEROD CLAPP
For Chris Jones, the cost of doing business is going to get lot steeper.
While tolls on local bridges won’t go into effect until late 2016, a bistate panel set the rates on Wednesday, finalizing a plan that sparked controversy at public meetings held throughout the area over the past several months.
Jones, who owns J & J Pallet Corp. in New Albany, fretted over the reality that box and panel trucks will pay $5 per crossing and semitrailer rates will begin at $10. With his company doing about 80 percent or more of its business across the Ohio River, Johnson anticipates paying another $140,000 annually to do business in Kentucky.
“It takes a truck running 60 miles and hour the same time it takes a car running 60 miles an hour to get over the bridge,” Jones said. “Why the truck pays 500 percent more is really hard for me to comprehend.”
In the rates unanimously approved by the Kentucky-Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project Tolling Body, frequent commuters in passenger cars will pay the lowest amount. Commuters who make more than 40 trips per month across the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, the new east-end bridge between Utica and Kentucky and the new downtown bridge will pay $1 per trip with an electronic transponder.
Also, a rate was established Wednesday to raise the tolls. The increases will come up to 2.5 percent annually or whatever the inflation rate is as measured by the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher. After the rates have been in place for a year, they’ll raise July 1 every year.
Tolling is expected to begin with the first project bridge opens sometime in 2016, according to Will Wingfield, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation, though he didn’t specify which bridge might open first. The fees will help pay for the $2.6 billion project that is decades in the making.
Instead of utilizing tolling plazas that require employees to collect cash from vehicles, the bridges will utilize tolling gantries built on the bridge structure, which will rely on electronic transponders and video cameras.
Frequent commuters will be able to prepay into an account from which tolls will be automatically deducted when the vehicle passes through a gantry. Vehicles without the transponders will be billed at the address to which the vehicle is registered, which will be determined by the license plate number.
Local businesses like Johnson’s could see the biggest impact, especially since there are no frequent crossing options for box trucks or semitrailers.
He said he’d like to see an option for companies like his to get a reduced rate for crossing the bridge on a regular basis, even if it meant slightly driving the price up slightly for commuter cars and trucks.
“I think it’s only fair,” Jones said. “This is a metro community that relies on distribution. We’re going to fragment our community by drawing a line in the river and saying the people in Indiana have a disadvantage.”
Michael Hancock, secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said the $1 rate for frequent commuters was something community members strongly supported and something the tolling body worked to make happen.
“At this point, we’ve analyzed all the opportunities for frequent user rates for trucks as well,” Hancock said. “That was a big item for us, we wanted to look at that very closely with the concept in mind that perhaps we could do something. But when you look at the revenues and what’s needed to support the project, where we wound up is that sweet spot as our traffic specialist indicated.
“That’s the point where we wound up. We looked at these kinds of issues but believe the $10 rate [for tractor trailers] is fair and it’s competitive.”
Bart O’Leary with Gotta Go Trucking in Clarksville said his business would pay $220,000 a year with the way the tolling structure was set up.
Hancock said though he understands the concerns of business owners, comments from the public have contributed to decisions made in regards to tolls.
“How we apply [those comments], how we put that into use isn’t always obvious,” Hancock said. “I can assure you that behind the scenes, there are decisions that have been made that have yielded benefits that the public pushed for.”
Editors note: This story is a corrected version of the original version.