PARK HILLS, Ky. – It’s looking more and more like tolls will be needed to help pay for the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge project.
So Kentucky lawmakers have been studying how they could ease the financial burden for Northern Kentucky residents who drive across the bridge frequently, Kentucky Rep. Adam Koenig said during a Northern Kentucky Forum panel discussion Monday.
For example, lawmakers have been studying the legality of allowing Northern Kentucky residents to deduct the cost of their toll payments from their state income taxes, Koenig, R-Erlanger, told a group of about 130 people gathered for the event at Drees Pavilion in Devou Park.
“We’re spit-balling,” he said in an interview after the event. “We’re trying to come up with a wide range of options.”
A study funded by Ohio and Kentucky state transportation officials and released last month determined there were two options for building a new Brent Spence Bridge, and both required tolls as part of the financing plan.
That’s not to say that Northern Kentucky lawmakers are resigned to the idea that tolls must be part of the project. Koenig said the region’s legislative caucus remains united in its opposition to tolls.
But even elected officials who don’t like the idea of tolls are united in believing the bridge should be replaced.
'It's Only Gotten Worse'
“We’ve been at this for a decade, and the situation hasn’t gotten better on the bridge,” Koenig said during the discussion. “It’s only gotten worse. It’s going to continue to get worse. We need to figure out how to go forward and make this happen eventually because we need to be a business friendly place. We need to be transportation friendly, and that includes our interstate, that includes this bridge, and that includes our airport.”
Roughly 70 percent of the people attending Monday’s forum agreed, based on a survey taken at the start of the event. Another 570 people responded to the survey online before the event, and 67 percent also agreed that there was “an urgent need to expand the capacity of the Brent Spence Bridge.”
But 47 percent of those at the forum – and 60 percent of the people who answered the survey online – said state and federal governments should fund the project.
The question of tolls was less clear.
Those at the event were evenly divided about whether they would be willing to pay for tolls, while 66 percent of the online respondents said no.
Crestview Hills Mayor Paul Meier, a panelist at Monday evening’s event, was representing the Kenton County Mayors Group, which he leads as chairman.
'Something Needs To Be Done'
“The Mayors Group has not made any formal decision on it,” he said of the tolls. “But I cross the bridge two to six times a day. I go to work very early in the morning. If I’m late, I’m there for 15 or 20 minutes. And I think something needs to be done about that.”
Covington Mayor Sherry Carran said she was less certain about whether the need for a replacement bridge is urgent. But if it’s going to happen, Carran said, she wants to make sure the massive project is built in a way that doesn’t harm Covington.
“I don’t want to close the door and say ‘no’ to tolls when I don’t have all the information,” she said.
Koenig and Kentucky Sen. Chris McDaniel, the forum’s fourth panelist, said they have little hope that the federal government will come up with the funding needed for the project.
And Northern Kentucky’s “distinct lack of political clout” in Frankfort doesn’t help matters either, McDaniel said.
Northern Kentucky doesn’t vote in large numbers during gubernatorial elections, McDaniel said, which means the state’s governors don’t feel obliged to help the region. And the state’s rural lawmakers still have lots of clout in Frankfort, despite the fact that they’re losing population, he said.
Lawmakers in those areas have little incentive to vote to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a bridge to Cincinnati, he said.
Carran said there’s been some talk of trying to toll the bridge across Interstate 471 to help pay for the project.
But that could require legislative changes at both the state and federal level, which seem unlikely at best, Debbie Simpson, president of Multi-Craft in Newport and chair of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce board, said after the event.
Still, there could be some other funding solution that politicians and business leaders haven’t thought of yet, Simpson said in an interview.
“Even though we’ve been doing this for so long, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a new good idea out there,” she said.
Monday’s panel discussion was hosted by the Northern Kentucky Forum, a nonpartisan project of Northern Kentucky University’s Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement, the Vision 2015 regional planning initiative and Legacy, a young