By BRADEN LAMMERS
>>SOUTHERN INDIANA —
Standing at the foot of a former toll bridge on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, a group of demonstrators held up signs saying, “No to Bridge Tolls.”
The group, which formed on social networking site Facebook, organized its demonstration Wednesday during the morning and evening rush hours to raise awareness and support against placing tolls on bridges associated with the Ohio River Bridges Project.
Co-founders of the “say no to bridge tolls” group, Dan Borsch and Shawn Reilly, said they were pleased with the initial support the group received at the Clark Memorial Bridge, also referred to as the Second Street Bridge.
No tolls for bridges
Funding has been the issue designated to the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, but it is also where groups like the “say no to bridge tolls” group have been gaining support.
The $4.1 billion price tag for the project has seen possible funding scenarios tossed around that include federal money, money from both Indiana and Kentucky, loans and bonds, public and private funding possibilities and, of course, tolls.
While the group admits that cross-river transit needs to be improved, the way in which it’s being pursued is incorrect.
One problem for Borsch is who has the authority to impose the tolls.
“An unelected authority has been appointed that could pass tolls at any price,” he said.
While he understands that several steps of approval remain once a plan is developed by the authority, it does not change the sentiment behind the group’s protest.
“Any toll should be a last resort,” Reilly said. “The problem with the bridges authority is they’re using it as a first option.”
Various funding options for the bridges are currently being pursued, but Reilly believes both Indiana and Kentucky should be willing to chip in more money to pay for the project.
Another common issue the “say no to bridge tolls” group is that drivers may have to pay to cross either, or both, the Sherman Minton Bridge and the Kennedy Bridge.
“I think we’re all adamant that the existing bridges should be free,” Borsch said.
Borsch called his group an umbrella organization and admitted that some people offering support aren’t entirely opposed to tolling the newly proposed East End and directional Interstate 65 bridges.
But it doesn’t mean the group supports the idea, or even the bridges project as it’s currently proposed.
Reilly said the cost of the project has ballooned out of proportion and the scale of the plans should be muted.
Plans that have been presented to the bi-state authority did not originally include tolling the Clark Memorial Bridge, but Reilly believes it could still be an option.
“The option for the Second Street Bridge is still on the table,” he said.
Reilly explained that if tolls were to be imposed on the other bridges crossing the river, the Second Street Bridge would immediately be over capacity in terms of traffic and a toll could be imposed to avoid diverting a massive amount of traffic to the bridge.
“We want to draw a line in the sand and say we don’t want tolls on any of the bridges we’ve already paid for,” Reilly said.
The “other side” of the bridges
Another line is being drawn by at least one local business.
“The important thing is we‘ve got to build the bridges,” said Eagle Steel President Chuck Moore. “The tolls are insignificant when you think of the safety, the commerce and the peace-of-mind that we all have who have to travel those bridges every day.”
The opposition to the additional cost is understandable to Moore, but he said the benefits greatly outweigh the price of tolls.
“I don’t want to pay the toll either,” he said. “Nobody wants an extra tax or a toll, but it’s inevitable. We have to build the bridges. If the only way to do it is the tolls then we must do it. When you consider all of the factors and the growth of Louisville and greater Louisville, both sides of the river depends on bridges. We’re stagnant now.”
Moore was the first to open his steel manufacturing business along the Ohio River in the Clark Maritime Centre in Jeffersonville — he also has a location on Collins Lane in Louisville — in part due to its location, but not because of the promise of eventually adding new bridges across the Ohio.
“We did not move here because of the bridges, or future bridges that we had hoped that there would be,” Moore said. “We moved here because of the river and being able to have access to the river, the rail and the roads. So it really was a perfect spot to have the bridges, and more bridges would be fantastic. It’s very important to us now.”
By adding the two proposed bridges to the region, Moore said Eagle Steel and other businesses in the complex would be poised to grow. The fact that the bridges haven’t been in place has been a detriment to Eagle Steel in the past.
“Fifteen years ago we had a customer in Kentucky who would not allow us to do their job unless we built a plant in Kentucky just because of the bridges,” Moore said. “Now we build a plant in Kentucky, it’s right across the river [and] we could get there in 10 minutes if we had a bridge. The convenience would be fantastic.”
With its proximity to the proposed East End Bridge, Moore was asked if one bridge would be enough to improve regional transportation.
“I think we need them both,” he said. “Because much of the traffic goes right through on [Interstate] 65 and they generally don’t want to take the route around the city. So that traffic would still be there, I would think.”
Another reason is that Eagle Steel relies on the Kennedy and Sherman Minton bridges to get its workers in on time. About one-third —approximately 25 — of the employees at Eagle Steel commute across the bridges daily, Moore said.
One of the commuters is Logistics Coordinator Buddy Yates.
Yates has worked at Eagle Steel for 19 years and drives the commute from Northwestern Parkway, in Louisville, daily.
“Well the commute is really horrible in the mornings and it’s really horrible in the evenings,” he said.
Yates is also worried about an incident occurring that would shut down either the Sherman Minton or Kennedy Bridge, referencing a barge that struck the Sherman Minton Bridge last year.
“It was an absolute fiasco,” he said. “If we only have those bridges to go by, it really makes it bad if something happens on one or the other. If they were to find a structural problem with one of the bridges, it would kill us.”
The trade-off of paying a toll is something Yates said he would be willing to accept.
“If you figure if you sit on the bridge for an hour, how much do you make and hour and what is it worth to you not to sit there for an hour burning your gas and your time?” he asked rhetorically.
Assistant Plant Manager Aquanetta Jewel has been with the company for 26 years and said she uses the Second Street Bridge to get to work.
“I try not to drive the expressway at all,” she said.
But if tolls are imposed on the bridges spanning the Ohio River it may change Jewel’s mind.
“It means then I would have to think about which way I would be going,” she said. “If I have to pay a toll then I’ll pay a toll.”