CINCINNATI – This much is certain: The results of the 2014 Kentucky General Assembly assure that the $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge project will be moving even more slowly than traffic on the span during rush hour.
What’s less clear, however, is whether a legislative maneuver to allow for tolling to fund the bridge project contributed to the demise of a bill designed to address the state’s heroin epidemic.
Whether that amendment killed the heroin bill "or was just one more piece of nuisance flotsam that got in the way of it, somebody needs to answer for what happened,” said Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank, a vocal opponent of tolling for the Brent Spence project. “This is literally going to put hundreds of lives at risk, if not thousands.”
Here’s what happened: During the waning hours of April 15, the final day of the legislative session, Rep. Sannie Overly, a Democrat from Paris, Ky., attached an amendment to Senate Bill 5. Sen. Katie Stine, a Southgate Republican, had introduced Senate Bill 5 to combat the heroin problem ravaging communities in Northern Kentucky and around the state.
Overly’s amendment would have attached the original language of House Bill 407, the so-called P3 legislation, to Stine’s heroin bill.
That was a controversial move among Northern Kentucky lawmakers because House Bill 407, as originally proposed, would have paved the way for tolls to help pay for the Brent Spence Bridge project.
Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, had successfully attached an amendment to that bill earlier in the session that would have forbidden tolling for any interstate bridge that connects Ohio and Kentucky.
Both the Kentucky House and Senate approved the measure with Simpson’s amendment included. But Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the measure April 11, saying in a statement that it was “imprudent to eliminate any potential means of financing construction of such a vital piece of infrastructure” as the Brent Spence Bridge.
Simpson told WCPO April 16 that, even after the governor’s veto, he expected the P3 legislation to be reintroduced as an amendment to an otherwise popular bill.
“Bills that pass one chamber and fail in the other are often times attached in other bills. The senators do it. The house members do it as well,” Simpson said. “I told all my colleagues, the game’s not over until the clock hits 12.”
Simpson said Rep. Joseph Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, spotted Overly’s amendment to Stine’s heroin bill.
“I told Sen. Stine I supported her bill, and I told her there’s no way I’m going to support that if it goes on your bill,” Simpson said. “That’s just part of the process of the General Assembly.”
Simpson said he doesn’t think the Overly amendment was the reason the heroin bill failed to pass before the session ended.
Frank acknowledged that other lawmakers have told him the bill got bogged down with other problems, too.
But, Frank said, the P3 amendment must have slowed down all the last-minute efforts to get the heroin bill passed.
“I know it took valuable time away in the last day,” he said. “And why is a Democrat from more than 100 miles away getting involved in our problem?”
Simpson said he assumed Overly attached the amendment at the request of Beshear.
When asked if that was true, a spokeswoman for Beshear referred WCPO to Overly. Overly did not return a message that WCPO left for her.
Business Leaders Disappointed
Business leaders who have said they would support tolls to pay for the Brent Spence Bridge project were dismayed that the P3 measure got attached to the heroin bill, said Brent Cooper, interim president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
“We were just as surprised and frustrated as everyone else,” he said. “I would have preferred that the heroin bill be passed cleanly. It’s a tragedy that it didn’t pass, and it should be an embarrassment that it didn’t pass.”
While Kentucky’s heroin epidemic is worst in Northern Kentucky, Cooper added: “It hurt the whole state.”
But Cooper said he’s also dismayed by implications that people who support tolls for the bridge project were behind Overly’s legislative maneuver.
“Anyone who insinuates that the Northern Kentucky Chamber had anything to do with getting that (heroin) legislation killed is just flat out lying,” he said. “We wanted it desperately.”
As for the bridge project, there is no legislation to allow for tolling and no clear path for any kind of financing plan for the project.
While the state originally planned to allocate nearly $60 million to the project – through a combination of $22 million earmarked federal funds and $37 million in state funds – that number has now been reduced to less than $30 million.
“It’s not enough to move the project along, and it’s going to kill the taxpayer at the
end of the day,” said Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments, known as OKI. OKI is the transportation planning agency that’s been advocating for a Brent Spence Bridge replacement for years.
“I would say we’re in pretty dire straits,” he said.
Simpson said he believes the bridge project will happen eventually because it must.
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 carried twice that number. By 2035, the span is expected to have more than 230,000 vehicles cross it daily.
Simpson said Northern Kentucky elected officials at the city, county and state levels are pretty uniformly opposed to tolls.
He said the community now must come together and reach consensus on how to move forward.
Frank, for one, said he thinks it will be a while before that can happen, especially after the defeat of the heroin bill.
“The trust level at this point is very low,” he said. “That’s a fair statement no matter what’s got any given person upset.”
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.