FORT MITCHELL, Ky. - A Friday morning meeting that started as a discussion about public-private partnerships ended with some heated debate over whether tolls should help fund construction of a new Brent Spence Bridge.
At the center of that debate was Matth Toebben, the German-born entrepreneur who has spent more than 50 years literally helping to build the Northern Kentucky region.
Toebben warned that if a toll for the Brent Spence Bridge goes through, “Northern Kentucky is going to be bled to the point where there’s nothing left but the university.”
The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce hosted the discussion Friday morning at its offices in Fort Mitchell. Dozens of business leaders packed the chamber’s conference room to hear a presentation by John Farris and Tom Howard of Commonwealth Economics, a firm that has experience with public-private partnerships around the state.
Proponents of a bridge toll have argued that it’s the best – and most realistic – option to generate the local money needed for the $2.7 billion bridge project and get it built as quickly as possible.
But Toebben, founder and chairman of Toebben Builders and Developers, Matth Toebben Construction and Toebben Ltd., and other opponents of tolls said at the meeting that Northern Kentucky must fight for other alternatives for the sake of the region.
'System Is Broke'
Toebben argued Kentucky lawmakers should get rid of the state gasoline tax and instead pass an additional one-cent statewide sales tax to fund infrastructure projects across the state.
“The present system is broke,” Toebben said. “We just don’t want to break Northern Kentucky for the advantage of the rest of the state. I think everything we’ve worked to build in Northern Kentucky for the past 50 years would be down the drain.”
He said after the meeting that the Northern Kentucky Chamber should oppose tolls for the best interests of the region.
Brent Cooper, president of Covington-based C-Forward and former chairman of the chamber’s board, said after the meeting that while Toebben’s proposed sales tax approach makes sense, he doesn’t think it’s realistic.
“I’m for a bridge,” Cooper told Toebben after the meeting. “I’m open to any solution that gets us a bridge.”
Board Chairman Lytle Thomas and Chamber President Steve Stevens issued a special announcement after the meeting Friday but took no position on the issue of tolls.
“The Chamber has always been and will continue to be pro-Bridge,” the announcement said. “The current Brent Spence Bridge Corridor is congested, dangerous and obsolete. We must build a new bridge now to remain competitive, create and retain jobs and provide the infrastructure necessary to prosper in a 21 st century economy.”
The announcement noted the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and Ohio Department of Transportation in September will announce their independent financial plan for the project. And Lytle and Stevens urged the agencies to continue to collaborate with the region’s businesses, citizens and communities to “find the safest, quickest way to build a bridge that benefits the entire region.”
On July 31, the Northern Kentucky Chamber and Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber will host Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock and Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray at a luncheon to discuss the issue further.