[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: Delay is taking a toll (1/11/2011)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Start Date: 1/11/2011 All Day
End Date: 1/11/2011
We've been here before.

". [A] controversy erupted over whether the bridge should be funded entirely from tax levies and operated without tolls or financed with revenue bonds, which would be retired through toll collections. ."

Sound familiar? Although the quotation easily could have appeared in any recent newspaper, it didn't. It's from the Encyclopedia of Louisville and refers to debate over construction of the Clark Memorial Bridge.

The article continues: "After studying numerous financial, engineering, and site proposals for seven months, the committee issued a report calling for construction of a highway toll bridge to be financed through a $5 million bond issue and managed by a five-member bridge commission. The report set off an eighteen-month period of public debate between backers of a toll bridge and those who favored a free bridge. In the winter of 1926 the Kentucky General Assembly enacted and Gov. William J. Fields signed legislation authorizing construction of a toll bridge and creating a Louisville Bridge Commission. But free-bridge forces, spearheaded by some of Louisville's most prominent business leaders, appeared to gain the upper hand when they persuaded the city's general council to submit the issue to voters. However, [in] October 1926 the Kentucky attorney general announced that the Kentucky Highway Commission lacked authority to expend money to maintain a free bridge. On election day the voters decisively defeated the free bridge proposal."

The bridge opened in October 1929, two days after the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression. The toll was 35 cents. In today's dollars, that would be $4.48, according to the inflation calculator on the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics website. In 1937, the toll was reduced to 25 cents - equivalent to $3.20 today.

According to the encyclopedia article, "the bonds were paid off several years early because of heavy wartime traffic to the Indiana Ordinance Works near Charlestown." The sentence suggests two important points. First, tolls went away when the bridge was paid off. Second, jobs in Southern Indiana were an important part of the equation.

Jobs in Southern Indiana are still an important part of the equation. The Indiana Ordinance Works - also known as the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant - is no more. Now it's the River Ridge Commerce Center, and instead of making bombs, it's creating jobs. New bridges would create many more.

Now we just have to figure out how to pay for them. If we do, construction on the East End bridge could start next year.

Like many others in our community, I was pleased last week when the governors of Indiana and Kentucky and the new mayor of Louisville announced cost-cutting plans for the Ohio River Bridges Project.

Several changes would reduce the project's estimated $4 billion price tag by approximately $500 million:

. Rebuild Spaghetti Junction in the existing location instead of moving it south.
. Reduce the East End bridge, roadway and tunnel from six lanes to four, with the option of adding two lanes later as traffic demand warrants.
. Complete the Big Four Bridge pedestrian walkway and bike path as an alternative to including pedestrian and bike paths on the new downtown bridge.

The governors and the mayor also signaled their desire to keep the Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial bridges toll free.

In addition, the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority will explore other cost-saving solutions for design, construction and financing by soliciting private-sector ideas at an industry innovation forum next month.

Business owners, commuters and other bridge users have played an important role in the recent debate over the bridges project. Even with last week's announcement, I know they still have many unanswered questions and concerns, and so do I.

Some of the biggest questions will be answered when a "time of day" model is completed around April 1. It will provide a comprehensive analysis of traffic and usage patterns and will be the basis for a funding proposal based on real numbers. Until then, everything is just a guess.

One thing, however, is for sure. The new bridges will be financed in a much different way than the last two bridges.

Ninety percent of the cost of the Kennedy and Sherman Minton Bridges was paid by the federal government as part of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, with Kentucky and Indiana picking up the remaining 10 percent of each bridge, respectively.

Those bridges opened almost 50 years ago, and much has changed. Needless to say, as we approach the federal debt ceiling, Uncle Sam will be lucky if he can afford to pay a toll to cross the new bridges, let alone finance their construction. Indiana has a portion of the funding available now, but it won't be there for long. If we delay, other areas of the state would probably be more than willing to find other uses for money that could help build bridges here.

Generations of community leaders have worked to build bridges - both literal and figurative - between Louisville and Southern Indiana. Now the responsibility is ours.

As I said, there remain many questions, and the coming months should provide answers. The sooner, the better. Last week's announcement included the assertion that each month of delay adds $10 million to the project's cost. That's an unacceptable toll.