By BRADEN LAMMERS
The Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau joined the town of Clarksville by pledging $10,000 toward a lawsuit that will fight tolls on the downtown corridor of the Ohio River Bridges Project.
The proposed suit would contest the inclusion of tolls on the downtown portion of the bridges project because of the anticipated negative economic affect it will have on Southern Indiana.
The downtown portion of the Ohio River Bridges Project is being completed by Kentucky and its contractor Walsh Construction Co. to rebuild Spaghetti Junction and construct a new Interstate 65 bridge. The work is expected to be completed by December 2016 at a cost of $971 million.
The east-end portion of the project is being completed by Indiana and its contractor WVB East End Partners — a consortium made up of Walsh Investors, VINCI Concessions, Bilfinger Bergerwhich among others — which will construct a new bridge and its approaches for $763 million by October 2016.
While the tourism bureau said they are not opposed to the bridges project, they are opposed to tolling being placed on the downtown bridges because they feel they are unfair to Southern Indiana.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind it will have a significant impact on tourism,” said Tourism Bureau Board Member Mike Kapfhammer, who offered the motion to pledge funds to the lawsuit.
Kapfhammer is a member of the Say No 2 Bridge Tolls organization that has long been fighting tolls on the downtown bridges and is also a co-owner of Buckhead Mountain Grill and Rocky’s Sub Pub on Riverside Drive in Jeffersonville. He explained that at the 4-1 rate at which Hoosiers will use the bridge, they will end up paying for about 65 percent of Spaghetti Junction and the residents of Louisville’s eastern suburbs will not be paying for anything downtown.
“What we need to figure out, we know it’s not fair, is it legal?” Kapfhammer asked.
The legality of the suit from the municipalities’ perspective also was questioned.
When the Jeffersonville City Council was presented with the same proposal by Councilman Dennis Julius at its Monday meeting, it tabled the matter to investigate the legality of pledging public funds to go toward a private, nonprofit entity heading up the suit — Organization for a Better Southern Indiana.
Neither Julius, nor the town of Clarksville, believe there are restrictions in allowing the municipality to pledge the funds to the lawsuit.
Tourism Bureau Board Member and Clarksville Town Councilman Bob Popp said the question was raised during a Clarksville town council meeting if it was legal for the town to enter the suit. He said Clarksville Town Attorney Chris Sturgeon said it was OK.
The money pledged from Clarksville is planned to come out of its general fund.
Popp added that the town agreed to enter the suit, “because of the number of businesses that we have, we feel like [tolls] will be detrimental to them. We’re talking about businesses such as Bass Pro [Shops] and the tourism part enters into it also. [Tourism] is a big help to Clarksville with its restaurants and its hotels so close to Louisville.”
In a prepared statement, Tourism Bureau Executive Director Jim Keith said the proximity to Louisville is a major tourism tool for Southern Indiana.
“One of our strongest marketing assets has been that we are a great place to stay when traveling to Louisville,” he said in the statement. “Our riverfront restaurants and other business are handy for people to visit, enjoy and spend their money. If you add a fee — whether it be $4 or $10 — while visiting a convention or event in the Louisville metropolitan area, you are creating a barrier to visitor spending along I-65.”
While Popp added he believed the money pledged would go directly to the attorney hired to file the suit, Clarksville Town Councilman Paul Fetter said the town itself may be named in the filing.
Fetter is also a member of Say No 2 Bridge Tolls and co-owner of Jeffersonville-based Clark County Auto Auction. He was the council member that presented the motion at Monday’s Clarksville Town Council meeting, which was unanimously approved. He said the town and the Organization for a Better Southern Indiana are still determining the best course of action.
Julius, the co-owner of a Jeffersonville-based Walnut Ridge Nursery, added that the time the Jeffersonville’s city council will have to review the proposal will not affect the ability to file the suit.
“The only question that came up was [if] we couldn’t write a check to a nonprofit organization,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any resistance.”
Fetter and Julius said at their respective meetings that the hastily conducted economic impact study by the Indiana Finance Authority predicted massive losses in the region over a 30-year period.
“What we are concerned about are tolls on the downtown bridge,” Julius said Monday. “We’re concerned that we’re losing exits into Jeffersonville.”
He also cited that the economic impact study said that marginal businesses in Jeffersonville may take a hit or go out of business as a result of tolls.
“I think we could all go up and down the street and almost every businesses in downtown Jeffersonville is marginal,” Julius said.
When asked what resolution he would like to see Julius said, “I would hope they could build one bridge without the other.”
He explained that he would like to see the east-end bridge constructed, and wait to see if it alleviates the traffic concerns before going ahead with constructing a second bridge downtown.
“You hope they take a little more [of a] look,” he said.