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Kentucky Legislators Considering Ways to Help Low-Income Residents With Bridge Toll Costs

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Ohio River Bridges Project
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Some Louisville lawmakers are backing Rep. Jim Wayne's sentiment that more needs to be done to help alleviate the burden that tolls on the new Ohio River bridge system will have on low-income residents.

Wayne criticized the plan approved on Thursday by transportation officials from both Kentucky and Indiana. The plan exempts TARC buses from paying tolls on the new bridges and provides free transponders are widely available in communities with large populations of low-income residents.

"I think that this was made by bureaucrats who do not understand the plight of the poor," Wayne said.

He said despite the approved measures, the tolls will still disproportionately affect low-income residents.

Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat, said a tax credit is "obviously the best way to" mitigate the costs for low-income residents.

"It helps those people who need the help," he said. "For some of these people, it's a big chunk out of their pay."

The plan approved by transportation officials is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough, Owens said.

The 2014 report examined a number of potential methods to mitigate some of the burden tolls will have on poorer residents—including toll discounts, one time toll credits and ongoing tax credits. Those possibilities were "determined not to be practicable" by transportation officials, according to the report.

But Wayne said he has introduced legislation calling for tax credits on the new bridge system for qualifying residents that would allow a full rebate at the end of the year.

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

The 2014 report does not outline any specific administrative costs associated with an ongoing tax credit for low income workers.

The loss in revenue that will result of an ongoing tax credit, however, is projected to be in the range of $8 million to as much as $90 million, according to the report.

Wayne said he will continue efforts to get the tax credit enacted, possibly with legislation in the General Assembly.

"We think there is a possibility that the legilsation we have proposed can still be implemented because it actually provides a benefit to these folks," he said. "We may, essentially, circumvent this, so called, tolling group that made this decision and circumvent the federal government, as well as the state transportation department."

Sen. Jerry Miller, a Louisville Republican, said he would be open to examining legislation that would allow an ongoing tax credit for low-income workers commuting through tolls.

"I'm willing to listen to anything that would make sense," he said.

He said "generally speaking," everyone should pay the same toll, regardless of income.

But Miller said that if a measure was to be adopted regarding mitigating tolling costs for low-income residents in northern Kentucky traveling across the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Covington and Cincinnati, he would adamantly push for similar measures in Louisville.

Rep. Reginald Meeks, a Louisville Democrat, said there "might be some other possible ways to address this challenge" besides the tolling body's decision last week.

A 2014 report from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Indiana Department of Transportation found the tolls on the soon-to-be-completed bridge system will account for about 4 percent of the annual income for someone living at the poverty threshold who commutes across the river five days a week. For more affluent residents, tolls will account for 2 percent of annual income levels.

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