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Steps to Ease Burden of Tolls on Low-Income Residents Don't Go Far Enough, Critics Say

Ohio River Bridges Project

Kentucky and Indiana officials took steps on Thursday to buttress low-income and minority residents from the financial burden of tolls for the new bridge system—but the plan is drawing instant criticism that it doesn't go far enough.

TARC buses will be exempt from the tolls on the new bridge system connecting Louisville and Southern Indiana, and billing equipment will be made widely available for free, the board overseeing the project decided on Thursday.

The proposals are the result of a study commission in 2014 that examined the effects tolling would have on poorer residents in the Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

The analysis found that “tolling had the potential to cause minority and low-income users to experience a greater increase in average user costs than would be experienced by non-minority and non-low-income users." (You can read the study here.)

State transportation officials found tolling would account for about 4 percent of the income for a person in poverty if they were to travel across the new bridge system five days a week for a year, at a cost of $1 per crossing. For wealthier residents, it's a 2 percent idea.

“From our view these were implementable solutions that bring the greatest benefit to the community," said Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock.

But state Rep. Jim Wayne, a Louisville Democrat, said he was "extremely disappointed" by the tolling body's decision.

"I think this was made by bureaucrats who do not understand the plight of the poor," he said. "This was a great opportunity that was missed for economic justice and, basically, they bombed it."

Wayne said despite these measure, the tolling will still impact the poor harder than the rich.

Terrell Holder agreed.

Holder, spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation, said the tolls are "in nature" a regressive tax.

"Any fee is that way," he said.

Holder, though, said that one idea for easing the financial burden—creating a lower toll rate for poorer residents—is "pretty much impossible."

Wayne said proposals were made that called for poor residents have the opportunity to submit a tax credit at the end of the year that would allow them to recieve a full rebate from the state.

"The proposal we submitted to them was dismissed very quickly as being administratively too cumbersome. I have to wonder if they read the legislation at all," he said.

Wayne said an attorney is taking a look at the proposal to allow low-income workers to attain a tax credit. If possible, he said the proposal may be able to be implemented by circumventing the tolling board.

"That's something we are weighing now to see if we can legally do. If so, we have support from throughout the Jefferson County delegation," he added.

The tolls will be placed on the bridges connecting downtown Louisville and the East End.

Researchers conducting the 2014 report examined three additional mitigation techniques. All three—a one-time transponder account credit program, an ongoing percentage toll discount program, and an ongoing state income tax credit program—were determined not to be practicable, per the report.

A toll discount program would bring with it a projected $33 million in administrative costs, according to the report. A discount could also reduce toll revenue by up to $110 million, depending on how broadly the criteria was formatted.

The cheapest anyone will be able to cross the bridge will likely be via TARC,  Hancock said.

“Owning a car comes along with it’s own costs,” he said.

But thousands of residents in vehicles are expected to be crossing the new bridge system daily. And the cheapest way to do that will be to become a “frequent commuter"—which offers discounted toll rates for people who often use the bridges,  said Chuck Wolfe, spokesman for the Kentucky Trasnportation Cabinet.

A "frequent commuter" would be a resident who sets up an account and has installed a transponder—the equipment used for billion their vehicle for electronic recognition, Wolfe said.

The specifics of what will dictate who is and is not a “frequent commuter” are still being worked out, Wolfe said. It’s likely to require 20 days a month of travel across the bridge, but other aspects are being considered.

“It doesn’t matter which transponder you have,” he added. “They’re all linked to your account.”

Accounts can be set up for a minimum of $20, according to a press release. Travelers without an account will have their license plates scanned as they pass the electronic toll then will be mailed an invoice for the toll amount. This process is expected to create additional costs for the state agencies, but what that exact cost will be has yet to be determined, Hancock said.

The transponders that will be made available in poorer communities will be a sticker meant to be placed in a windshield, Wolfe said.

They will be free.

Another type of transponder will likely mount inside the vehicle, but will resemble an electronic gizmo.

The free transponders will be placed in convenient stores, community centers, government buildings and other places frequented by people, Wolfe said.

The construction of the bridges is expected to be completed in late 2016.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.