CINCINNATI – Kentucky and Ohio transportation officials on Thursday released a new study of options for building a $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge replacement, and both options would require tolls as a funding source.
The so-called “options analysis,” paid for by the Ohio Department of Transportation and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, studied four possible procurement methods for building the bridge. It named two as the best potential options:
• Design-build. In this approach, the states would pay for the project through a combination of federal, state, federal loan and bond funding. The loans and bonds would be repaid through the collection of tolls.
• Availability payment concession. In this approach, a contractor would finance and build the project and would be repaid on a regular schedule over a long period of time. Tolls would be collected to make those payments.
The study estimated that the states can collect enough revenue to pay for the massive project with:
• A $1 to $2 base toll for cars;
• A $3 to $6 toll for light trucks;
• And a $5 to $10 toll for heavy trucks
If the low-range of tolls is implemented, the report predicts that 25 percent of vehicles that currently use the Brent Spence Bridge will use other bridges to cross the Ohio River instead with that number dropping over time to 17 percent.
If the higher range of tolls is implemented, the report predicts that 39 percent of vehicles will use other bridges instead with that figure dropping to 27 percent over time.
Staff in the two state transportation departments will now study both building options. Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock will meet, probably in the next few weeks, to come up with a recommendation to send to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, said Chuck Wolfe, executive director of the Kentucky cabinet’s office of public affairs.
OKI: Report Starts The Conversation
The top official at the region’s lead transportation planning agency called the study “the next step, not the final step” in a statement emailed to WCPO.
“I hope this analysis will correct some of the gross misstatements about the Brent Spence Bridge project by some,” said Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. “We need to have a rational conversation among all of us about how we are going to finance the new bridge. And, we need that conversation now to move the project and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The co-chairman of the Build Our New Bridge Now coalition echoed those sentiments.
“We look forward to reviewing and discussing the options analysis with state officials and helping to ensure this project gets done faster, most economically and with the most benefit to our community,” Mike Michael said in an emailed statement.
But a Northern Kentucky business leader who has been advocating for a new bridge for years said he was “frustrated” with the study released Thursday.
“I’m frustrated that more options aren’t being discussed or considered, but I’m not surprised at all because that’s been consistent with what everyone else has been saying for the last number of years,” said Brent Cooper, president of C-Forward, an IT company based in Covington.
Cooper said he’s not philosophically opposed to tolls. But he wishes state officials would consider a “miles traveled” tax or a carefully crafted sales tax as possible options to fund the project, too.
“I’m open to any option that gets us a bridge. I know that we need a bridge, and I know that we have to do something,” he said. “I don’t know how this is going to play out.”
Tolls Could Be A Tough Sell
Tolls have been a touchy subject in the region. Northern Kentucky state lawmakers have repeatedly expressed opposition to the idea of tolls, as have several high-profile business owners in the region.
Cooper said business people will need more details before they decide whether they can support either option released Thursday.
“We might have some business members with heavy trucks who might be OK with a toll solution if it’s $5,” Cooper said. “But they might be against it if it’s $10. That’s twice as much.”
Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank called the design-build option the “least worst option” in an email to WCPO.
“I say it is still a worst option because of the traffic diversion that is specified in the report,” said Frank, who has been a vocal critic of the impact the project could have on the city of Covington.
Frank said that the traffic diversion spelled out in the report could damage the historic John A. Roebling Suspension bridge or hurt the city’s Mainstrasse Village as more drivers use the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge.
He said the other option outlined in the study would require higher tolls “or else the risk of bankruptcy for the bridge project would be a metaphysical certainty.”
Frank added that the study didn’t consider the cost Covington will bear from the extra wear
and tear on side roads or the “lost revenue from business failures due to changes in traffic patterns.”
State Officials: Let's Move Forward
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet must file an initial financial plan for the project by Dec. 31.
That plan will be adjusted as the project moves forward depending on market conditions and other factors, Wolfe said.
The Brent Spence Bridge replacement project consists of building a second bridge just west of the existing bridge to increase safety and alleviate congestion. The existing bridge also would be renovated. And nearly eight miles of highway – about five in Northern Kentucky and three in Ohio – would be involved in the project, too.
The Brent Spence Bridge was built about 50 years ago. It’s been determined to be structurally sound but is classified as “functionally obsolete” because it has narrow lanes, no emergency lanes and limited visibility on its lower north-bound deck.
“Both Ohio and Kentucky know we cannot wait another 50 years to address this bottleneck,” Wray said in a news release. “Without the hard work by both teams the citizens and economy of Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky will suffer. We appreciate the partners we’ve found in Kentucky and look forward to continuing to move this project forward.”
Hancock added in the release: “Our Bi-State Management Team will continue to work so that, together, we can make a reasoned decision.”
To download a PDF of the entire report, go to http://brentspencebridgecorridor.com/Options-Analysis