CINCINNATI – Kentucky lawmakers soon will determine the fate of the $2.63 billion Brent Spence Bridge replacement.
While it’s still too early to tell whether the project is dead or delayed, this much appears certain: The region isn’t getting a new bridge anytime soon.
“Instead of building a bridge sooner, cheaper, we’re going to build it later and more expensive,” said Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. “And that’s the sad fact.”
A Brent Spence Bridge replacement and rehabilitation project has been in the works since 2000, with Policinski’s transportation planning agency and local business leaders pushing for the project for more than a decade.
Transportation officials have deemed the span structurally safe but functionally obsolete. The bridge was originally designed to carry 80,000 vehicles per 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 Bridge, which would also get a makeover. It also would improve approaches in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. In all, the project would encompass a 7.8-mile corridor.
Bridge Hopes Dashed
State officials had hoped to start construction next year and complete the project in 2020.
Proponents were counting on the 2014 Kentucky General Assembly to pass so-called public-private partnership, or P3, legislation that would give the region more options to pay for the project.
But the likelihood that tolls would be a major part of that financing plan has drawn strong opposition from Northern Kentucky residents. State Rep. Arnold Simpson, a Covington Democrat, proposed an amendment to the P3 legislation to forbid tolling on any interstate project that connects Kentucky and Ohio. A majority of lawmakers in both the Kentucky House and Senate approved the bill and Simpson’s amendment.
Those opposed to tolls view the amendment as a major victory.
That’s not how Brent Cooper sees it.
“In the current political environment, no tolls means no bridge,” said Cooper, interim president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “This doesn’t mean there won’t be tolls. It just means there won’t be tolls today. Unfortunately, the longer we wait, it increases the likelihood that the tolls would be higher.”
Gov. Steve Beshear must now decide which legislation to sign and which measures to veto. Lawmakers will return to Frankfort April 14 and April 15 to review any vetoes and complete their work.
Next Steps In Frankfort
Several unanswered questions remain for the Brent Spence Bridge project:
• Will the project get $37 million in funding through the state’s road plan to continue planning, design and other pre-construction work? That funding would be in addition to a $22 million federal earmark set aside for the project years ago.
House leaders pulled the $37 million from their version of the state budget once the Simpson amendment was passed, arguing the money could be spent better elsewhere if the bridge wasn’t going to be built anytime soon.
Senate leadership restored the money, giving proponents hope that the funds will be dedicated to the project in the final version of the state’s spending plan.
“I think it’s better to include it than not include it,” said former Northern Kentucky University President Jim Votruba, chairman of the Northern Kentucky CEO Roundtable. “But I still don’t know how we move to overcome the Simpson amendment. The $37 million still begs the question of a larger funding strategy.”
• Will Simpson’s amendment be amended in some way? Cooper is holding out hope that the language of the amendment could be tweaked so that it forces a conversation about tolls without forbidding them in a way that halts significant progress on the project.
“The amendment is a big mistake,” Cooper said. “Saying ‘absolutely no’ really limits what we can do. I hope there’s still time to rectify that mistake.”
Votruba said he doesn’t know if that’s possible. But he worries the amendment sets a bad precedent that “discriminates” against one region of the state in legislation.
“If it gets done this time, it seems to me that it’s easier to do in other bills for other things,” he said.
• Will Beshear veto H.B. 407? That would kill the amendment but also would disappoint lawmakers in other parts of the state who support the legislation as a way to help fund their own local projects. And lawmakers could vote to overturn a veto.
Beshear’s office is “reviewing all the passed bills” and hasn’t yet made a decision on action regarding the P3 bill, Kerri Richardson, the governor’s communications director, said in an email to WCPO.
What Comes Next?
Whatever happens in Frankfort, there’s no doubt the project has, at the very least, been stalled.
That could end up being a good thing for taxpayers, Simpson said.
He argued a delay could result in re-engineering that ultimately could reduce the scope
and cost of the project.
Simpson said he also believes that waiting could force the federal government to find a way to fund the project, which, after all, carries two interstate highways across the Ohio River.
“I think over time they will be forced to do so if we remain patient,” he said. “Obviously, that’s where the big debate is. Do we have the luxury of remaining patient?”
But the other possibility is that the federal government could stop funding the project completely if officials see no hope for a local funding source, which tolling would provide, said Policinski.
He warned that this legislative session’s action could delay completion of the project until 2035, based on the way such major projects are typically planned and funded.
“Without a financing package or a path to a financial package, the project’s not going anywhere,” Policinski said.
Simpson called that logic “like Chicken Little and the sky is falling.”
Policinski said it’s fact.
Still, everyone seems to agree that more discussion is needed so the region as a whole can agree on the best way forward.
What Would Tolls Look Like?
For example, there’s been very little public discussion about ways to structure tolling to reduce the burden on local drivers, Cooper said.
“Are people willing to pay a $1 toll? Yes. Are businesses willing to pay more for trucks? Absolutely,” he said. “Could you pay a flat fee when you get your driver’s license renewed?”
With the amendment that forbids tolling, “we can’t even have the conversation,” he said.
Cooper wants the Northern Kentucky Chamber to convene a series of meetings related to transportation and infrastructure so that business and community leaders and elected officials can agree on what the region’s priorities should be.
“We’re going to need everybody all singing from the same hymnal to get it done,” he said. “Projects of this magnitude don’t happen if there are vocal disagreements.”
The delay also should force proponents of the project to listen to the people and communities that will be most affected by it, said Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank, a vocal critic of the tolling proposal.
“The region was asking us to take one for the team, basically, and nobody wanted to listen to our situation,” Frank said. “No. The answer is no. And, God love you, no.”
Both Frank and Simpson said they expect the region’s leaders will come together at some point after the legislative session ends to find a new path forward for the project.
“If everybody in the world thinks this thing has to happen sooner rather than later, the door isn’t so shut that we wouldn’t have some conversations in general,” Frank said. “But to be specific and to think things are going to come together in the first month after this thing, I don’t know what people are smoking.”
Business leaders hope the region can come to an agreement soon, though.
“We’ve made so much progress over the last 30 years with regard to economic development,” said Bill Robinson, an advocate for the project. He’s chairman of the Kenton County Airport Board and member-in-charge of Frost Brown Todd’s Northern Kentucky offices. “It would really be a shame not only to put the brakes on, but maybe to go in reverse.”
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.