LOUISVILLE — A Kentucky legislator has suggested tolling four of the crossings over the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky once the Ohio River Bridges Project is complete.

Kentucky Sen. Dan Seum, R-Fairdale, and chair of the Jefferson County Senate Republican Caucus suggested tolls should be used to fund the construction of a downtown bridge, east-end bridge and reconstruction of Spaghetti Junction. He added that the tolling should extend to the Interstate 64 Sherman Minton Bridge, which is shut down for repairs, and that tolling should begin as soon as possible.

“The answer to this is the sooner we put the tolls out there, the sooner we start building a bridge,” he said in a report from WHAS-TV in Louisville.

However, Seum’s suggestion is a contradiction to the plan Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer agreed to when they reduced the scope and price of the project down to $2.9 billion in June. When the plan was offered, it recommended the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority develop a financial plan with tolls to be included only on the Interstate 65 corridor and the east-end bridge.

Bridges Authority Spokeswoman Christi Lanier-Robinson said the plan of tolling the east-end bridge and downtown corridor is the financial plan the authority is pursuing.

“Our focus remains on the scope of work the governors gave to us,” she said.

Indiana Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, agreed and said that he thought tolling of the Sherman Minton Bridge had already been taken off the table.

“It’s my understanding tolls on the Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial Bridge were taken out of the equation last year,” he said. “I don’t know what it would accomplish to reopen that discussion. I think it would be a big step backward to talk about tolling [the] Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial Bridge.”

Fellow Indiana legislator Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, offered a similar perspective. He said the governors have already weighed in on the issue and the plan moving forward was to consider tolling on the downtown and east-end portions of the project only.

“I would do everything I can to discourage any tolls on the Sherman Minton bridge,” he said. “Sherman Minton tolling was never to be brought back as a topic of discussion. Starting over with the funding plan, that would cause another delay.”

Grooms did not offer whether or not he will ultimately support tolls on the other portions of the project, but that he will wait to see their cost.

“Once we know exactly what we’re talking about, if those [tolls] appear to be a hardship on the residents of my district, I would be against it,” he said.

He said he would then offer his recommendation to the state’s budget committee, which will in turn take a vote and offer its recommendation to the governor for final approval.

The agreement reached in principle between the two governors — which further reduced the price of the project to $2.6 billion — was that each state would take the lead in financing and overseeing construction of one half of the project, splitting the overall cost. Kentucky would be responsible for financing and constructing the downtown portion of the project, including the reconstruction of Spaghetti Junction, and Indiana would be responsible for financing and constructing the east-end portion of the project.

And the bridges authority’s role is to help coordinate the shared project under a single financial plan.

But to cover the cost for Kentucky’s portion of the $1.3 billion, Seum suggested tolling all bridges, including the east-end that is under Indiana’s purview. Indiana has already said it has the funding dedicated for the project through Major Moves funding that has been earmarked.

In addition to using tolls to cover a financing shortfall, Seum admitted that Indiana residents will be among those bearing the majority of the costs.

“Being from Jefferson County, remember that I think that most of the tolls would get paid by folks over in Indiana and our tourism and our big trucks,” he said in the report. “So it won’t be as onerous I guess to the average person out there but that’s the reality of it.”

Clarksville Town Councilman and No 2 Bridge Tolls co-founder Paul Fetter has been fighting tolling existing infrastructure. He also said the financial arrangement has been unfair from the beginning and has consistently referenced Hoosiers will pay a disproportionate amount of the tolls. He cited Indiana commuters use the bridges over the river almost five times as much as Louisville commuters.

Fetter said Seum’s motivation in suggesting tolling to the Sherman Minton Bridge is to further reduce Kentucky’s cost for the project.

“His goal is to reduce Kentucky’s financial responsibility on the project,” he said. “‘Toll them all, let Indiana pay for it,’ is essentially what he’s saying. Well, the governors have already said they’re not going to toll the Sherman Minton. It’d be nice to see our leaders stand up and protect Hoosiers.”

An answer on tolling has not been returned by the Federal Highway Administration and is not expected until after the final version of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and a financial plan have both been submitted to the federal agency by the respective state transportation organizations.

“Federal Highway has to approve all of it,” said Lanier-Robinson, referring to financial plans that would include tolling scenarios. “Any change to the scope of the work would have to be done by both states.”

Messages and emails left with Seum by the News and Tribune were not returned as of press time.
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