The Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority last evening dashed expectations that a specific tolling plan for the controversial $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project would be ready by the end of the year.
The disclosure came amid the harsh sunlight of a meeting room at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, where sign-wielding protesters wore tape over their mouths to mark the authority’s suspension of public comment.
Officials said a detailed financial plan can’t be developed until a tolling study including time-of-day models and a separate study assessing the environmental impacts of altered traffic patterns and congestion are completed.
By year’s end, a financial plan update “will have assumptions in there” and “will meet the requirements of the Kentucky budget resolution,” Steve Schultz, executive director of the bi-state authority, told reporters.
Otherwise, under withering questioning, he struggled to explain the value of the update.
“If there are certain things that can’t be in there because you’re waiting on studies that are not going to be ready until the spring and you can’t go to market for awhile, I mean, how useful is it actually going to be?” asked Courier-Journal reporter Marcus Green.
“I think it’s a key milestone on our progress forward, I think it’s a marker in the ground, I think it will be another thing we will have delivered on and it will be a baseline that we can compare financial plan enhancements to,” Schultz said.
“Marcus, you’ve got to start somewhere to finish,” authority co-chair Cary Stemler interjected.
“What’s going to be the substantive difference between what you have right now and what you’re going to deliver as a draft in December?” Green asked.
“We’re working on that,” Schultz replied.
Noting factors beyond the authority’s control, Schultz didn’t deny that there could be “six months, a year or a year-and-a-half” before it is known what elements could be tolled.
“We don’t control those factors,” he said.
Officials are awaiting federal guidance on which roads and bridges may be tolled.
Bridges Coalition chairman David Nicklies spoke to that issue on WFPL’s “State of Affairs” on July 8. “The downtown bridge system is a system – I-64, I-65, Second Street bridges. If you don’t ask permission to toll the entire system, the system probably won’t properly work,” he said.
During a recess in last night’s meeting, Stemler wouldn’t agree with that statement or rule out tolls on any of the three existing bridges. “Everything’s possible there,” he said, adding, “The one I would least likely (want) to ever see a toll on would be the Second Street bridge. I think the Second Street bridge is more like a commuter bridge, a street.”
In 1946, tolls paid off that $4.7 million bridge project, which completed in 1929 and dedicated by President Herbert Hoover as a memorial to George Rogers Clark.
A study of tolling scenarios presented at a summer meeting may hint at expectations of tolling site approvals. It includes new bridges (on I-65 and in the East End between Prospect and Utica) and the Kennedy interchange (Spaghetti Junction), which will be demolished and rebuilt south of its current footprint.
The scenarios were based on “currently anticipated federal eligibilities.” [sic]
At last night’s meeting — the first evening gathering and the first devoid of public comment — Stemler told reporters, “What we decided, we needed more public input. So we decided to have two meetings between now and the end of the year just for the public,” before he was interrupted.
“After you’ve created the plan — that’s bullshit,” snarled Curt Morrison, communications director for Say No to Bridge Tolls.
Authority co-chair Charles Buddeke later said that each of two four-hour public comment meetings would be held on both sides of the river before and after the board votes on the plan. “Once we’ve got our draft up,” he said, “we’ll try to bring in as many of the players in this whole thing as possible” including regional, state and federal transportation officials “to answer people’s questions.”
Shawn Reilly, co-founder of Say NO to Bridge Tolls, called the meeting an outrageous “slap in the face to the public and this community.”
“We need to be able to respond to what they’re talking about” immediately, he said.
He says his group has collected 5,000 signatures from Kentuckiana citizens opposed to tolls on existing bridges and Spaghetti Junction.
Immediately prior to adjournment, the bi-state authority accepted anti-tolling resolutions by Louisville’s Metro Council and the City Council of New Albany.
— Story submitted by Steve Shaw