COVINGTON – Top transportation officials in Ohio and Kentucky want to start building the Brent Spence Bridge replacement project in 2015.
But first they have to find the $2.5 billion needed to pay for it.
That was the message from Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock at a luncheon Monday sponsored by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
“It really does come down to a fairly succinct problem,” Hancock told the more than 180 business people and elected officials gathered for the event. “We know what we want, we know what we want to do. The issue comes down to funding. How are we going to pay for it?”
State transportation officials in Ohio and Kentucky have funded an “options analysis,” which they expect to release in the coming weeks. While that study won’t be the final say on how officials want to fund the massive project, it will show the various financing options that could be used.
Neither Hancock nor Wray would give the audience any hints about what that study would show, but both men stressed that the region can’t count on the federal government to pay for the whole project.
“Really, we’re going to have to be innovative,” Hancock said. “You’ve heard our governor say tolling is something that’s going to have to be done. It has to be on the table certainly for discussion, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Funding Plan Must Be Complete By Dec. 31
By Dec. 31, Hancock said, he must give the governor a financial plan for the Brent Spence Bridge “if indeed one is possible.” Hancock said his goal is to include that financial plan in the six-year highway plan that he must present to the General Assembly when it convenes in January. And he also must include information about any changes in the law that would be needed for the plan to work.
“The Kentucky General Assembly simply will have to play in this process,” Hancock said. “They will have the opportunity to play in this, and they must carry the ball. They must be in favor of whatever plan we come up with for it to be successful.”
That could be a sticking point, however, as Northern Kentucky lawmakers have generally opposed the idea of tolls.
Still, Wray said Monday that if tolls are implemented to help pay for a new bridge, he believes the two states can figure out a way to make them less onerous for local drivers.
Wray also stressed that, if tolls are used, the states would only collect enough money to pay off the debt issued to fund the bridge project.
“I’ve heard concern that this project somehow is going to make money for the states,” he said. “That is not what we’re going to do. This financial plan that we come up with will be to pay for the bridge – not to make money.”
Tolls weren’t the only concern raised at Monday’s event, however.
Covington City Manager Larry Klein asked how state officials would keep a multi-year bridge construction project from hurting Covington’s businesses.
Hancock said the state would do its best to mitigate the traffic problems and access problems that Covington would face during the project.
“The opportunity for things to go a little haywire will always be there,” he said. “Mitigation plans will help.”
And Wray said that transportation officials across the country are getting better and better at helping communities deal with the headaches that construction can bring.
“We have several urban transportation renewal projects in Ohio now, and we get more compliments than we do complaints,” he said. “And that’s what I would expect to happen in Covington when this happens.”
Covington Has Concerns
Klein said after the event that he’s still concerned on two fronts. Construction of the replacement bridge and its approaches will make it harder for people to get to businesses in Covington during the several years the project will take to complete, he said.
“There are businesses that could go out of business in that time,” he said.
And after the bridge is completed, if it requires tolls, that also could push more traffic onto Covington’s residential streets as drivers divert to use the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge and John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge.
“Those are not built to handle that,” Klein said.
Wray and Hancock said during the forum that details would be forthcoming.
And they underscored how important both states believe the project is.
Wray called the Brent Spence Bridge project Ohio’s top transportation priority. And Hancock said it’s among Kentucky’s top priorities, too.
Libby Korosec, director of the business-backed Build Our New Bridge Now Coalition, said after the luncheon that she’s confident the project will be built.
“We’ll get a bridge,” she said. “We’ve heard it from the governors, that this is a priority,
and we trust them to stand by those commitments. And we’re here to do anything we can to help.”