By BRADEN LAMMERS
Residents again came out to voice their opinions at a meeting to collect public comments on the Ohio River Bridges Project, but few believe anything will change.
More than 120 people attended the public open house held to gather comments on the economic impacts of tolling for the bridges project on low-income and minority users.
“I don’t anticipate that this means anything, ultimately,” said Georgetown resident Karen Bassett, who offered her input Monday. “Yes, throughout their entire process they’ve had their meetings and invited comment, but I just get the sense on both sides of the river the decision was made and it doesn’t really ... matter what we say.”
The tentative plan for tolling will place electronic tolls on both Interstate 65 bridges — a new northbound bridge being constructed and the existing Kennedy Bridge which will become a southbound-only bridge — and the east-end bridge. The Interstate 64 Sherman Minton Bridge and the Clark Memorial Bridge will remain untolled. Rates for the tolls on the bridges have not been finalized, but Indiana and Kentucky have been operating off of a model that would set tolling figures at $1 each way for frequent commuters; $2 per crossing for other passenger vehicles; $5 each way for panel or box trucks; and $10 per crossing for semi-trucks.
Despite the purpose for the meeting, the bulk of the comments offered up by local residents continue to be centered around concerns that have been brought up since tolling was announced as potentially being part of the project.
“It means less discretionary income,” Bassett said of tolls on the bridges. “Every single dollar they take out of our pocket on that toll bridge is going to be a dollar not spent locally. And I don’t see what they’re doing to mitigate the impact to Southern Indiana business.”
Dan Christensen, owner of Affairs of the Heart Florist in Jeffersonville, was concerned about the amount of cost that would hit the Jeffersonville florist shop.
“We don’t necessarily stock everything our customers want ... [but] within 30 minutes I can get it,” he said.
Christensen said the wholesalers that he buys from are located in Louisville, and combined with the trips he makes to deliver flowers over the river, he often makes six trips a day across the I-65 bridge.
The lone state legislator at the meeting, Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, said he has asked about a frequent-commercial-user rate, especially for small businesses. He added other vehicles like taxi cabs and ambulances have not been investigated for a possible frequent-user rate or exempt status.
While he said the impact of a car going across the bridge can be measured, ultimately the impact on businesses is unknown.
Grooms said increased traffic could bring more customers to Indiana despite the tolls.
“If the northbound I-65 bridge is now at six lanes, it brings 20 percent more traffic to Southern Indiana,” Grooms said. “Does that mean my business now has access to 20 percent more people? I don’t know. I think that’s a question we just can’t answer until we see what the impact is.”
Some local residents believe they already know the answer.
“The little restaurants down here .... it’s going to kill them,” said Jeffersonville resident Robert “Doc” Lee. He added that a lot of people cross the river to come to the events held at Jeffersonville’s RiverStage on the weekends, and wondered if that would be affected by bridge tolls.
Clarksville Town Councilman and Say No 2 Bridge Tolls co-founder Paul Fetter has said consistently that the tolls on the downtown corridor will create a barrier to those who come across the river to shop or eat. He offered several solutions to avoid tolls, but said the chances of any of them being implemented is unlikely.
“We’ve been having meetings for three years, we’ve been making comments for three years,” Fetter said. “No, I don’t think they’re going to do anything that anybody else suggests.”
Spokesmen for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Indiana Department of Transportation said there is not a timeline on when those rates would be finalized.
Rates will be among the decisions made by the Kentucky-Indiana Joint Tolling Board, which includes leaders of the two states’ transportation and finance agencies. In addition, the board will likely determine an index for inflation, whether or not the recommendations made in the draft report — which include giving away transponders for free — are implemented and what exemptions will exist for the tolls.
A second recommendation in the report calls for $20 million to be provided to Transit Authority of River City, or TARC, for capital investment in buses and improved transit facilities to enhance public transportation. And TARC is seeking an exemption that would allow its buses to avoid the cost of tolls all together.
According to the resolution, TARC buses cross the Ohio River 946 times each week and TARC3 provides another 140 trips.
TARC Spokesman Jon Reiter said it is uncertain what rate TARC would be subject to under the current tolling structure for each crossing if it is not granted an exempt status.
“It’s all hypothetical at this point, but we don’t anticipate passing along any toll expenses by increasing fares,” he said in an email. “It may mean, however, that we have to pull a bus or two from a particular route which would lead to decreased service levels at a time when we should be adding service.”