By BRADEN LAMMERS
Another public forum was held Saturday on the Ohio River Bridges Project, and tolls were again the big issue for people with concerns about the plan to build two new bridges connecting Kentucky and Indiana.
The public hearing was part of the process to finalize a contract with WVB East End Partners a collaboration of several entities and companies — which was chosen as the preliminary winner for Indiana’s portion of the bridges project. The contractor team will design, construction and finance a new east-end bridge and its approaches that will connect Interstate 265 in Prospect, Ky. to Utica.
Paul Fetter, Clarksville town councilman and organizer of No 2 Bridge tolls — a group opposing the tolling of the Interstate 65 corridor — said he and the town fully support the plan to construct and toll the east-end bridge. However, he added that he, and the town council, still oppose the idea of tolling Interstate 65 downtown.
“The downtown portion, unlike the east-end, creates no new jobs nor economic development,” he said. “It does exactly the opposite.”
Fetter cited an economic impact study conducted by the Indiana Finance Authority as part of the process to enter into a public-private partnership to finance the bridge’s construction and the negative impact tolling will have on Clark and Floyd counties.
“It is the IFA’s responsibility in doing this study to advise Indiana of the severe economic consequences,” he said. “It is also Indiana’s responsibility to its communities that will be damaged by these consequences to remedy these. Indiana must do what’s necessary not to allow its own communities to be harmed by this project.”
The study conducted by Boston-based Economic Development Research Group in about seven weeks interviewed 29 “key individuals” and included an online business survey from 81 respondents.
The study returned that the Ohio River Bridges Project would add 18,000 jobs annually, result in $27.3 billion in personal income and $78 billion in economic output for the region. It also said that tolling would negatively impact employment by 1,578 jobs, negatively affect personal income by $2.2 billion and negatively affect business output by $5.58 billion over 30 years.
REASON FOR THE MEETING
“The purpose of today’s hearing is solely to receive comments from the public on the selection process and the WVB proposal,” said Jim McGoff, general counsel for the finance authority.
When it was announced in November that WVB was the initial winner of the contract, it outlined construction costs would total $763 million — 23 percent lower than previous cost estimates — and the bridge would be open to traffic by October 2016, instead of the original projected date of June 2017.
McGoff said that the Indiana Finance Authority will take into account the comments that were summarized Saturday and make a recommendation on whether or not to approve the contract at a meeting Monday. The recommendation will then be sent to the state budget committee and Gov. Mitch Daniels, who will have to approve IFA’s recommendation before the contract can be signed.
Those comments that were collected offered both a degree of support and a steady opposition to various aspects of the project. McGoff said because of the public comments collected during the process to enter into the public-private partnership, the finance authority did more than was statutorily required to make sure it did study the economic impacts.
However, for many, it has not been investigated deeply enough and has sparked the potential for a lawsuit. The town of Clarksville and the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau have pledged $10,000 to fight tolls on the downtown corridor of the bridges project because of the anticipated negative economic affect it will have on Southern Indiana. It is expected that the city of Jeffersonville will also take a vote on whether or not to pledge $10,000 at its city council meeting tonight.
Another lawsuit is already pending in U.S. District Court Western District of Kentucky.
Clarence Hixson, attorney for Coalition for the Advancement of Reasonable Transportation Inc. — or CART — and a party in the federal lawsuit said the group adamantly opposes Indiana entering into a contract with WVB.
“They will be collecting tolls for 35 years after construction of the east-end bridge,” he said. “There is no need to set up a tolling authority to pay high-paid bureaucrats to collect tolls. The inequitable impact is going to be on the lower- and middle-income users of this bridge. If we’re going to announce today a 23 percent reduction in the cost of building the east-end bridge, why are we not going back and looking at funding the bridge with conventional funding resources?” he asked.
Hixson continued and said instead of the $2.9 billion price tag estimated by the states to build the bridges project, with tolling over the 35-year period, costs would be “almost $10 billion collected in tolls from the local community. The cure seems worse than the disease in this case.”
“There has been so much that hasn’t been provided here for public consideration,” he said. “CART therefore opposes the signing of the [public-private-partnership].”
David Coyte, president of CART, was also on hand to offer his opposition to the project.
“The only people that are going to benefit from this project are the initial investors,” he said. “The community as a whole loses.”
Jerry Acy, executive director of River Ridge Commerce Center — located adjacent to where the Indiana approach to the new east-end bridge will land — offered his support for the project and said it has already spurred development at the former Indiana Army Ammunition Plant site.
“It will absolutely accelerate and facilitate economic development,” he said of the east-end bridge. “It has already had a major impact in the form of the Amazon project which is just completed and operating. The fact that the announcement had been made concerning the reality of the east-end bridge played a major role in that $150 million investment.”