Sep 5, 2013 7:48 PM
JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Kentucky ran into an unexpected slowdown Thursday in setting toll rates for three Ohio River bridges - a key factor in completing its share of financing for a $2.6 billion project with Indiana that will build two new spans and renovate a third bridge connecting the two states.
Indiana members of a two-state tolling board asked for a delay in setting the tolls, which surprised Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock. The meeting's agenda had included a resolution that would have set initial toll rates that will help finance one of the nation's largest public works endeavors.
The board's Kentucky members agreed to delay action but received assurances from their cross-river neighbors that the tolling issue will be a top priority.
Indiana has secured financing for its part of the project, which includes a new bridge east of Louisville that will connect Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky.
Kentucky still needs to raise hundreds of millions of dollars through toll bonds and a low-interest federal transportation loan for its share, highlighted by a new Interstate 65 span between downtown Louisville and Jeffersonville. Kentucky's financing is expected to be in place by this fall, but Hancock said the delay could add to the state's costs.
"Our concern is interest rates are continuing to rise," he told reporters afterward. "As interest rates go up and we have a ... multi-decade-long financing deal, it's incumbent on us to get the very best rates and keep those costs down so the toll rates that have to be charged are as low as they can possibly be."
Motorists will eventually pay electronic tolls to use the two new spans and existing Kennedy Bridge, which will be renovated to handle southbound traffic on I-65. The new downtown span will carry northbound traffic on I-65. The Kennedy Bridge currently handles I-65 traffic crossing the river in both directions.
Both new bridges are scheduled to open in 2016. Construction is underway, and a window where the board met showed cranes involved in the work on the Kentucky side.
Will Wingfield, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation, said the delay on tolling was due to the need for a final review of documents. He said it didn't signal any disagreement over toll rates. Both states are relying on toll revenue to finance the project.
"Getting two large states together to get everything done takes time," he said.
Hancock said he understood the need to nail down every detail but said Kentucky officials hope to get toll rates set in the coming weeks.
"The only frustration is we didn't get it signed this morning, but we'll get it done," he said.
Frequent commuters could pay as little as $1 to cross the bridges, while some truck drivers could pay as much as $12, according to a recent Kentucky highway report.
There will be no toll plazas or coin buckets. Instead, the bridges will use tolling gantries that rely on electronic transponders and video cameras.
Frequent commuters will be issued electronic transponders and be able to pre-pay into accounts from which tolls will be automatically deducted when the vehicle passes through a gantry. Vehicles without transponders will be billed at the address to which the vehicle is registered as determined by license plate numbers captured by video cameras.
Barb Anderson, an advocate for the homeless, tried to ask the board a question at the end of the meeting, but the board adjourned without recognizing her.
Afterward, the Jeffersonville woman told reporters she wanted to ask what consideration was being given to the poor in setting tolls.
"Poor people are going to be dramatically impacted by these tolls," she said. "It will be a hefty part of money we have to pay in this tax, and that's what it is, is a tax."
Hancock said officials were taking every step possible to make sure tolls aren't an undue burden. Officials held meetings that allowed for public comment on toll rates.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)