Louisville officials want state, federal help to end tolls on Ohio River bridges
Louisville Metro officials are calling foul after Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an agreement with his Ohio counterpart last month on a new, toll-free bridge between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati.
Metro Council members have advanced a bipartisan resolution calling on Beshear, as well as Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, to eliminate tolls on three bridges connecting Louisville to Southern Indiana. The resolution strikes a similar tone to comments made by Mayor Greg Fischer last month. In a video posted to Twitter, Fischer said state officials are hoping to leverage money from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to fund the Brent Spence companion bridge in Cincinnati. And he says it’s only fair they try to direct some federal funds to the Ohio River Bridges Project, too.
“We can take the burden off of the hard-working families here and businesses in Louisville and Southern Indiana,” Fischer said. “They certainly deserve that.”
The Metro Council resolution passed out of the Public Works Committee last week by a 6-1 vote. At the meeting, District 19 Council Member Anthony Piagentini, who leads the Republican caucus, said there is “complete bipartisan support” for trying to eliminate bridge tolls using federal funding.
The tolled bridges connecting Louisville and Southern Indiana were completed in 2016 without any federal dollars. It was the culmination of decades of planning and advocacy.
In order to pay for the bridges, residents are charged between $4.42 and $7.73 to cross the Abraham Lincoln Bridge, which connects downtown to Jeffersonville, Ind., and the Lewis and Clark Bridge, connecting the East End to Utica, Ind. Tolls are less for people with a prepaid Riverlink account, but the cost for everyone increases each summer. There are also tolls on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, which was built in 1963 and reconditioned as part of the project.
“This is crazy,” Piagentini said at the committee meeting. “Louisville would be getting penalized for taking the initiative, is the message this would send.”
By the end of 2020, area residents had paid roughly $386 million to travel across the three bridges, according to Riverlink’s 2020 annual progress report. The company estimates tolls will continue until at least 2053.
Council President David James, a Democrat, also spoke in support of the resolution during committee. James said he takes issue with Kentucky pushing for a fully-funded bridge in Northern Kentucky “while our citizens here are still paying tolls for bridges.”
“It didn’t seem quite right,” he said.
At a press conference earlier this month, Beshear said he is unsure whether paying off an existing bridges project will be an eligible use for the federal dollars. The U.S. Department of Transportation has yet to publish spending guidelines.
“We’re going to have to look at whether what Mayor Fischer is suggesting is even allowed,” he said.
Beshear also said Louisville Metro will likely have access to funding for airport, roads and sewer infrastructure under that bill, which smaller localities will miss out on.
The Metro Council resolution was amended last week to include a provision calling for “innovative financing or toll credits for future projects” in Louisville if the Ohio River Bridges project does not qualify for federal funding.
Despite bipartisan support, some council members are not in favor of ditching the current toll plan. District 26 representative Brent Ackerson, a Democrat, was the lone vote against the resolution in committee. He said local residents already know which bridges to take across the Ohio River to avoid paying tolls.
“We got what we needed and we have a plan in place to pay for those [bridges],” Ackerson said. “What’s great about the payment of those [bridges] is interstate trucking and interstate travel is helping to pay for those.”
Metro Council is currently taking a two-week break from public meetings. The resolution is likely to get a final vote at the next full council meeting in mid-April.