Learning from Louisville: Civic engagement groups hold forum on Brent Spence Bridge replacement

Kentucky Lt. Gov.: Nobody likes tolls

PARK HILLS, Ky. -- Drivers in metropolitan Louisville hate the idea of tolls as much as anyone, Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson said after a forum in Northern Kentucky Monday night.

“Who the hell likes tolls?” said Abramson, a former mayor of Louisville. “Nobody.”

But the Louisville and Southern Indiana metropolitan community finally decided tolls were a necessary evil to build two bridges across the Ohio River.

That was the message from Abramson and businessman Kerry Stemler, the two panelists at “Building Bridges: Lessons from Louisville,” Monday evening’s Northern Kentucky Forum held at Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills.

Still, a group of about 70 residents, business people and elected officials gathered for the forum showed just how tough a sell a toll could be here.

Questions from the audience tore at the foundation of the Louisville experience.

One person argued the Brent Spence Bridge deserves federal funding more than the spans in Louisville because the bridge here is more important to interstate commerce. (Abramson’s answer: Congress should fund projects important to interstate commerce, but it doesn’t.)

Another questioned how difficult it would be to collect tolls from drivers just passing through the Louisville area. (Stemler’s answer: States have reciprocal agreements to make it work.)

Still another asked what would prevent the Louisville area tolling authority from spending toll money on other projects, like tolling authorities in New York and New Jersey do. (Stemler said binding agreements between the states limit what tolls can fund.)

And the fundamental question that came up more than once: What’s wrong with our federal government if Congress can’t find money to pay for a bridge that helps keep the nation’s economy moving?

“We have a dysfunctional crowd in Washington,” Abramson said during the forum. “You have seen the way our Congress works – or doesn’t work. All they do is fight.”

The bottom line, he and Stemler said, is that if communities want to address their critical infrastructure needs, they must find a way to do it themselves.

And increasingly, that means tolls, said Stemler, the CEO of two Indiana-based companies that operate in the Greater Louisville Metropolitan Area.

“We have the same frustration with the system,” Stemler said. “This gas tax model is broken. How come we can’t fix Congress? But we’ve got a lot of other situations in this country we can’t fix Congress on either.”

Locally, business leaders pushing for a Brent Spence Bridge replacement hope Kentucky and Ohio transportation officials are getting closer to developing funding recommendations for the $2.7 billion project.

Abramson: 'What Are We Doing Here?'

Transportation officials from both states expect to release initial results of their so-called “options analysis,” which is expected to include tolling among possible financing options.

Meanwhile, Abramson and Stemler were left wondering whether the community really wants a new bridge here at all.

One question posed at the forum put it like this: We don’t have an unsafe bridge. We don’t have 45-minute daily traffic jams. We don’t have 6,000 acres of land right across the river that a new bridge would open to development, like the East End Bridge in Louisville would.

“So then what are we doing here?” Abramson said toward the end of the two-hour meeting. “If everybody’s happy, go forward and do good things. My assumption from all the people I hear complaining on the Kentucky side is the difficulties of getting over the bridge and back. If that’s not the case, what are we doing here?”

Or as Stemler put it after the forum: “The community’s got to decide they want it.”

Stemler said he’s got lots of friends and even family members who are still angry with him because he ultimately supported the idea of tolls to get Louisville’s new bridges built.

“Where we got to is we couldn’t come up with another solution other than solving our own problem,” he said.

Time will tell what the Greater Cincinnati community will come up with here.

The event was held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and was free and open to the public.

The Northern Kentucky Forum is a partnership of the Scripps Howard Center of Civic Engagement, the Vision 2015 regional planning initiative for Northern Kentucky, and LEGACY, Northern Kentucky's young professional group.

Forum Chair Tara Ford said a future program will focus specifically on the local bridge project.

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