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June 29, 2011

Troubled water

Talk of bridge tolls draws ire of public at Southern Indiana meeting

About 150 citizens converged on Clarksville’s Holiday Inn Monday to see the latest conflict in the epic drama of the Ohio River Bridges Project. Federal law requires opportunities for public comment as part of a supplemental environmental review triggered by recently revised designs and tolling. Twenty-eight Kentuckiana residents held forth.

Two candidates for Clarksville Town Council led the charge against tolling.

“There’s the overwhelming belief that tolls will have a tremendous negative impact on Southern Indiana,” said Democrat John Gilkey. “In essence, they create a barrier.”

The frustration of Republican Paul Fetter, co-founder of No2BridgeTolls, was palpable: “They’ve cut $1.2 billion from the price of the project — a project we were told could not be changed,” he said. “It’s time to quit telling us that we can’t build this project without tolls.”

Jasper May, of Charlestown, was more blunt: “If the bridge goes in with tolls, fire your representatives!”

Barb Anderson was more creative: “I’m an old hippie, folks. I believe in boycotting — so when the tolls go up, we keep our business local, we cross when we have to, we don’t go to Louisville restaurants …”

An ongoing traffic diversion analysis is considering tolls in the range of $1-$2 for cars, trucks and SUVs; $2-$4 for box/panel trucks; and $4-$8 for tractor-trailers. Actual toll rates will be set by the 12-member bi-state Bridges Authority.

Anderson, a cross-river commuter, bemoans a rate of even $1 for cars: “My taxation, for the tolls, would be equivalent to my property tax,” she said.

Project officials insist that tolling remains a necessary source of revenue despite recently proposed changes, which lower cost estimates for the project from $4.1 billion to $2.9 billion.

The new plan, subject to Federal Highway Administration approval, expands Spaghetti Junction in its current footprint, modifies the Indiana approach to I-65 bridges and reduces the proposed East End span, roadway and tunnel from six lanes to four.

Vocal opponents initially embraced the redesign. But momentum appears to be slowing as details emerge.

Still, the project has its perennial defenders.

Vaughan Scott, producer of a controversial pro-bridges video, said the project would remedy “a significant public safety risk.”

“Don’t take my word for the condition of the bridges; take a walk underneath ’em … and you tell me whether that’s a foundation that you wanna build a future on.”

Maj. Roger Parvin, of Louisville Metro Emergency Medical Services, cited delays and congestion in Spaghetti Junction as a key concern, given 250 to 300 daily ambulance runs.

And Steve McDaniel, a carpenter, appealed for work on behalf of skilled labor: “If we can start building these bridges, I’ll make a good living — and so will a whole lot of my union brothers and sisters.”

Critics remain vexed by the lack of public transportation infrastructure and excesses in the eastern hemisphere of the project.

Tyler Allen, co-founder of 8664.org, calls it “insane” that the Prospect, Ky. approach is now more costly than Spaghetti Junction.

Many blame conservancy River Fields.

Stu Noland, founder of Save Louisville, decried “building a quarter-billion-dollar tunnel under a few politically connected families’ suburban estates … We will do everything we can to deny the toll revenues to complete the undemocratic, socially unjust and economically detrimental downtown portion of the project.”

Echoing several speakers, Jeffersonville resident Paul Faulkenstein said, “Let’s do a good East End bridge — and when we can afford more, we can take another look at the downtown bridge.”

Faulkenstein drew applause when he said, “In a perfect world, the members of River Fields and Jerry Abramson would pay for the outlandish cost increases out of their pocket.”

River Fields has been accused of trying to “stop the East End bridge by any means” by Kentuckians for Progress, a pro-bridges group of individual stakeholders and labor unions, which seeks to join — and abort — River Fields’ federal lawsuit challenging the project.

Former Jefferson County Judge Executive Rebecca Jackson, a KFP co-founder, told the crowd that a pending lawsuit “would add half a point to the bond issue,” thus costing taxpayers (and toll-payers) an additional $300 million over a 30-year loan.

Last week, parties to the suit responded to KFP’s motion to intervene in the suit as co-defendant to the FHWA.

For months, KFP has been pressing River Fields to drop the suit. KFP attorney Vic Maddox recently predicted River Fields would oppose his bid to intervene.

He was correct.

But the objection was submitted by lawyers for River Fields’ partner, the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It claims that “KFP’s intervention in this case at the present time will not … prevent ‘delay, obstruction or prevention’ of the Bridges Project … this litigation has no responsibility whatsoever for project delays.”

But in its original complaint, filed in September 2009, the plaintiffs’ threaten to “seek injunctive relief prohibiting Defendants from providing any further financial assistance for the Project” if the Bridges Authority develops a financial plan “before this action is concluded. “Finally, and most importantly,” the plaintiffs argue in last week’s response, “allowing KFP’s intervention will both unduly delay and prejudice the adjudication of the rights of the original parties.”

KFP is “unwilling to engage in a civil or respectful discourse.” Its motion “is characterized by pejorative and ad hominem references to Plaintiffs” … and “disdain for the FHWA … defendants as ‘federal bureaucrats’ who have ‘little or no personal stake in the project.’”

The response also cites a 30-second TV spot narrated by Jackson. “KFP’s media campaign is characterized by even greater level of vitriol and invective, accusing Plaintiffs of being ‘environmental extremists’ and ‘elitists’ consisting of a ‘handful of people’ trying to ‘selfishly stop progress.’ Allowing KFP’s intervention will inevitably introduce acrimony, invective and mean-spiritedness into these proceedings that will undermine the efficient administration of justice.”

8664 released to reporters

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