CINCINNATI – There’s no question Duke Energy Corp. has been one of the region’s leading business advocates for building the $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge replacement as quickly as possible.
But at least one local elected official has questioned why.
Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank, a vocal opponent of the use of tolls to fund the bridge project, said he wonders whether Duke’s own business interests have influenced the company’s advocacy.
At the very least, Frank said, citizens should know just how involved Duke has been in the Build Our New Bridge Now group that has been advocating for the project.
“I am not anti-Duke here,” Frank said. “I’m just for disclosure.”
A Brent Spence Bridge replacement and rehabilitation project has been in the works since 2000. Transportation officials have deemed the span structurally safe but functionally obsolete.
The bridge was originally designed to carry 80,000 vehicles a day and now carries about twice that number. By 2035, the span is expected to have more than 230,000 vehicles cross it daily.
Under the current plan, a new bridge would be built parallel to the existing Brent Spence, which also would get a makeover. It also would improve approaches in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. The project stalled in the recently ended Kentucky legislative session.
Duke Substation Sits In Project’s Path
Duke’s West End Substation sits right along the path of the new bridge that is part of the replacement project. Company officials estimate it will cost between $30 million and $50 million to move it. Original estimates put the cost as high as $100 million.
“Duke Energy’s West End Substation is fully functional and would not need to be relocated if it were not required by the state of Ohio to advance this project,” said corporate spokesman Blair Schroeder. “Duke is in no way positioned to make money off this project. But like many other businesses along that route, we should be compensated accordingly for our piece of property.”
Former Duke regional president Julie Janson announced the Build Our New Bridge Now group in May 2012, after becoming chair of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber board of directors.
The incorporation papers for the Build Our New Bridge Now nonprofit list Duke’s downtown Cincinnati address and list Duke executive Johnna Reeder as its statutory agent.
Schroeder said Duke took on the effort because Janson was chair of the chamber board, and the company viewed the project as important to the region.
“Duke Energy has a long track record of embracing economic development to help our region grow,” he said.
No other company in the region, in fact, can match Duke when it comes to spending on economic development, said Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
“What this comes down to is no good deed goes unpunished,” Policinski said. “Somebody tries to do something good, and they get popped in the nose.”
Policinski noted that OKI has been working for 10 years to build political, community and financial support for the Brent Spence Bridge project. The location for the new span was determined by state transportation officials in Ohio and Kentucky – years before the business coalition was formed – in an effort to save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars that alternate locations would have added to the project, Policinski said.
The project was energized when the governors of Ohio and Kentucky agreed to move as quickly as possible to get it built, he said.
That’s when local business leaders came together to advocate for the project, Policinski said.
The Right To Advocate
Frank, who noted that he owns Duke stock, said he believes that Duke and other companies and individuals have every right to advocate for their own self-interests.
He noted that Reeder is listed as the point of contact for the Build Our New Bridge Now group in legislative ethics reports filed with the state of Kentucky that lists tens of thousands of dollars spent on advocacy for the project.
“I’m sure people are doing things for what they believe are good reasons, and I don’t fault anyone for being involved in the political process,” Frank said. “I just think people have a right to know.”
But although Reeder was the point of contact for the group, many businesses contributed the money that the coalition has been spending on advocacy for the project, said Patrick Crowley, a spokesman for the coalition.
The coalition’s website, in fact, lists scores of businesses as coalition “members and supporters,” including such small nonprofits as the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce to corporate titans including the Procter & Gamble Co. and Macy’s Inc.
“Duke Energy is one of many businesses that supported this effort,” Policinski said. “When somebody can’t win on the facts, they create goblins. And that’s what’s happened here, over and over again.”
For his part, Frank said he’s simply trying to do his job as a Covington city commissioner.
“The citizens of Covington
have hired me to try to get the best outcome for whatever happens with that bridge,” he said. “I am not anti-Duke. If I was anti-Duke, I wouldn’t own so much stock.”
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.