CINCINNATI - It's possible that work could begin by 2015 on the $2.5 billion project to replace the Brent Spence Bridge and upgrade the eight-mile corridor from the Western Hills Viaduct in Ohio to Dixie Highway in Kentucky.
That was the challenge to the region outlined Monday by the Boards of Directors of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. They met at the Moerlein Lager House in Cincinnati.
"We'd like for construction to begin as early as 2015 and be completed by 2018," said Julie Janson, Chair of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. That's five years earlier than previous timelines had laid out.
A nine-step campaign called "Build Our New Bridge Now" has been launched to educate the public and elected officials about the need for a new bridge. It's also designed to encourage elected officials and their constituents to support the project and allocate funds to pay for it.
- STEP 1: Call to action - COMPLETE
- STEP 2: CEO Outreach/Fundraising - INITIATED/ONGOING
- STEP 3: Establish coalition to support bridge effort - INITIATED/ONGOING
- STEP 4: Create communications, public relations and grassroots advocacy campaign to educate public and elected officials - INITIATED/ONGOING
- STEP 5: Lobby Ohio and Kentucky state officials to move quickly on a joint agreement and approve necessary legislation - INITIATED/ONGOING
- STEP 6: Ohio-Kentucky bi-state agreement created - FUTURE
- STEP 7: Recommendation on project scope, finance plan, sources of funds and project delivery method - FUTURE
- STEP 8: Infrastructure recommendations adopted by Ohio and Kentucky General Assembly - FUTURE
- STEP 9: Construction starts on new bridge - FUTURE
Fundraising for the program is already underway.
"We'll start talking to other businesses, community leaders, trying to raise the funds so that we can do the lobbying that we need to do, the communications that we need to do and the grass roots education that we need to do," Janson said. "That will be ongoing over the next three to six months."
Mark Policinski, Executive Director of the OKI Regional Council of Governments, said the key is every business leader talking about the bridge project every place they go.
"When the business community does that, that's where we're going to get the urgency," he said "That's why this bridge is going to be started in 2015 and it will be finished by 2018."
Urgency is the new buzzword, according to Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber President Ellen van der Horst and Northern Kentucky Chamber President Steve Stevens.
"Every day we allow to pass without taking steps toward rebuilding it, we lose a place in the regional economy, in the national economy and the global economy," said van der Horst.
Stevens added, "Never before have you had a uniting of the business community. I think it has taken a while to educate folks to really get a grasp on the economic impact of this bridge."
The Brent Spence Bridge was opened in November of 1963 and was expected to carry 80,000 vehicles a year. The daily volume is well over 150,000 vehicles with a projection of 200,000 in the next few years.
Traffic congestion and accidents have combined through the years to frustrate commuters, waste fuel and cause millions of dollars worth of lost time.
Tom Gabelman, of the law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, is working on the bridge project, just as he did for years to help bring The Banks to fruition. He said over a billion dollars a year is being wasted.
"It's $750 million in fuel, $750 million in terms of wasted time and $100 million in terms of project costs a year," he stated.
Chamber officials said each month the project is delayed adds another $8 million to the $2.5 billion price tag. Finding funding and moving the schedule up could save $500 million.
"If we do act, you return $18 billion in terms of the economic impact driver for this community," said Gabelman. Thirty-thousand jobs will be created. It will be the largest project ever in this entire region.
Funding remains the biggest challenge. It used to be that the federal government would pay 80 percent of the cost of big projects with local and state governments paying the rest. However, those days are long gone.
Public-private partnerships are the rule right now.
President Obama made a speech in front of the Brent Spence Bridge last fall, urging U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of West Chester and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to pass his jobs bill.
Mister Obama said the bridge was an ideal project for job creation. However, that bill fizzled in Congress.
Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican, and Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, met last week and declared their joint support for the Brent Spence project. Both leaders said that all financing options need to be explored. That includes possible naming rights, a vehicle tax, a fuel tax increase and even tolls.
Tolls are one way being used to pay for two new Ohio River bridges
between Kentucky and Indiana at Louisville.
Work could begin on those in the next two years. Kentucky Lt. Governor Jerry Abramson, the former Louisville Mayor, spoke to the chamber gathering in Cincinnati, and endorsed the education plan.
"This entire region has got to understand the importance of opening this bridge so the goods and services can flow, so the economic vitality -- the engine for this region of America -- continues to grow and expand," he said.
Tolls, Abramson said, have to be explored. The new Louisville area bridge user fee will be $1 each way.
"Now that Washington has walked away from their responsibility, the only answer we could come up with was tolls," he said. "That's exactly how we got it done."
The Brent Spence Bridge project is facing a huge deadline from Kentucky Legislators. The Lt. Governor said that legislative leaders have said that they will not authorize any more money for the project until they see a final financing plan by the end of 2013.
"You've got a year-and-three-quarters to work through this approach and decide which way you want to go," he warned. "My gut says you need four, five, six months of getting into the grass roots to let small business men and women, to let families understand why it's imperative for their kids, for their grandkids, to ultimately go forward with the bridge and financing."
Meanwhile, Sandra Markley and her daughter, Stephanie Dawson, sat on the steps of their rented Covington home on Crescent Street and worried. The house is likely to be razed to make way for the bridge upgrade.
"It's not going to be easy at all," Markley said. "It's going to be real tough for us anyway."
Markley said she understands that the bridge is overcrowded, but worries about her future since she's on disability and her monthly income is limited.
"I think it would be a good thing to widen it, but the pressure of moving is tough," she said.