Louisville toll bridges re-ignite question on whether it's the Brent Spence solution

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-29 08:34:42-05

Tolls have arrived on Kentucky's Ohio River banks.

No, not on the Brent Spence Bridge, where local leaders have sparred for years over how to finance much needed improvements to the aging and congested span, but in Louisville: Three bridges crossing the Ohio into southern Indiana began charging tolls for use in late December.

Using tolls to pay for improvements to the Brent Spence corridor -- which would include the bridge itself as well as down Interstate 71/75 to Dixie Highway in Fort Mitchell and up I-75 North to the Western Hills Viaduct in Cincinnati's West Side -- has been one of Northern Kentucky's hottest political potatoes in recent memory, a discussion that Louisville's newly opened bridges have re-ignited here.

"It's a structurally sound but functionally obsolete bridge," said Bob Yeager, chief district engineer for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

"Something has to be done."

But locally, tolls are still not an acceptable solution for the Brent Spence.

"I don't care what you call it -- a 'toll' or a 'user fee' or 'creative financing' -- it's still another tax," said Kentucky State Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who represents District 65 in the northern portion of Kenton County.

Simpson has been an outspoken opponent of tolls since the idea was proposed in 2014, and feared their implementation in Louisville might mean tolls would come to the Brent Spence corridor. He believes a toll would place an unfair portion of the financial burden on Northern Kentucky.

For Trey Grayson, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, tolls are an option worth exploring.

"The Louisville versus Cincinnati a fair one," Grayson said. "Both cities have been talking for a long time about building bridges to transform their regional transportation.

"Right now they've done something about their bottleneck, and we're still working on it," he said.

Something fixed, something new 

Yeager's office -- right down the interstate from the Brent Spence Bridge -- is a testament to just how busy his job keeps him, with plans, blueprints and other documents often covering most of his desk space.

The Brent Spence corridor is one of those projects.

"Funding is always going to be an issue no matter how you look at anything this size," he said.

Part of Yeager's challenge is that local leaders still have not agreed on what exactly should be done: Do we just repair the bridge? Do we build a sister bridge alongside the Brent Spence? Do we widen the interstate leading up to the bridge? Do we construct a bypass? All of the above?

The current proposal -- co-sponsored by the KYTC and the Ohio Department of Transportation -- is a sister bridge and lane expansion from Dixie Highway to the bridge, Yeager said, costing an estimated $2.6 billion.

For now, Gov. Matt Bevin has set aside $38 million for maintenance, repair and painting of the bridge, according to KYTC spokesman Ryan Watts.

Until a further direction is chosen, though, talking about funding remains difficult, Yeager said. 

For Grayson, the controversy surrounding tolls specifically -- and a key difference between Cincinnati and Louisville -- is the type of work that needs to be done. While a sister bridge is currently proposed, there are no guarantees.

"There's a lot of newness that came in with (the Louisville) project, whereas with the Brent Spence Bridge corridor, we're getting something fixed," he said. "I think it's been hard for a lot of people to get their hands around the cost and payment of just getting something fixed because it's easier to imagine getting something new than fixing something old."

Right now, there's no clear sense of what Northern Kentucky will get that's "new," he said, whereas in Louisville they built two new bridges and rehabilitated one, which -- in addition to the three bridges -- resulted in the completion of their Interstate 265 loop. Imagining a combination of completing the Interstate 275 loop (completed in the 1970s), reconfiguring Fort Washington Way (completed in the late 1990s), and upgrading the Brent Spence would be more comparable to the scale of what Louisville was trying to finance all at once, he said.

"In a sense, (Louisville) solved their problem by making it bigger," he said.

Two-way street?

The question of tolls comes down to more than just the public's perception of "new versus old," Grayson said. For him, it also comes down to a difference in the relationship between the two sides of the river.

"We're a much more integrated community in Greater Cincinnati," he said. "To get from our office here in Fort Mitchell to Newport on the Levee, for example, most people are going to cross the Brent Spence, go down Fort Washington Way, and cross back over (Interstate) 471, because that's the quickest way to get to the Levee." He also pointed to the river's relatively narrow width along the region's riverfront and the volume of pedestrians who use bridges like the Roebling Suspension Bridge or the Taylor-Southgate Bridge.

Contrast this with what Grayson described as more of a one-way commuter flow on Louisville's bridges, with the majority of the region's jobs, attractions and -- here's a critical difference -- its airport being on the Kentucky side.

"That makes the tolling issue a little bit harder (in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky) because there's just a lot more connectivity," he said.

Simpson worries more Kentucky commuters will end up being charged as they head to work in Ohio than the reverse.

"People who live in Kentucky and work in Ohio will pay for it," he said. "It's not fair for our commuters to pay (a toll) and the Ohio commuters also working downtown not to pay," he said.

Simpson compared Kentucky's position in the toll discussion to Indiana's, where, like in Northern Kentucky, he said most of the opposition over tolling the Louisville bridges occurred.

Simpson also believes a Brent Spence upgrade would disproportionately benefit Cincinnati's West Side over Northern Kentucky.

"Development in Northern Kentucky? It's already here; it's already happening," he said. "The opportunity for future development is going to be where? In Cincinnati."

As head of the NKY Chamber, Grayson obviously disagrees with Simpson on that front, saying more capacity and less congestion would only lead to further growth south of the river.

"This is not only about a bridge, but about growing the economy. We just need more capacity to handle the growth that our community is seeing."

Just a diversion?

Simpson said another adverse effect he fears with tolls would be how easily they could be avoided, with four other bridges available to cross -- and how that increased traffic could strain those other bridges.

In Louisville, commuters -- at least for now -- have a toll-free option in the Interstate 64 bridge.

He also worries a toll will strain low-income commuters living in Northern Kentucky's urban river cities.

"People will avoid that even though, to some it might be minor, to others it will be a tremendous burden," he said.

Simpson and others have criticized the proposed tolls, saying they could cost everyday commuters as much as $10 per day. Proponents with the Build Our New Bridge Now Coalition, however, have since refuted that estimate, saying local, frequent bridge users would probably pay as little as $1-2 per crossing.

A December 2015 motorcycle crash clogged up the Brent Spence Bridge. Such crash-related congestion is increasingly common.

For Grayson, anything much more than that -- at least for regular bridge users -- would just be ineffective.

"Nobody's going to build a bridge with a $4 or $5 toll because no one's going to want to pay to cross a bridge for that much money," he said. "It's just impractical."

Grayson is also skeptical that through-commuters would take the time to divert.

"We know there's some level of diversion, but I don't think anything's going to change," he said. "The Brent Spence corridor is going to remain our 'Main Street' for cargo, for business, for pleasure, for commuters for a long time.

"That's why it's worth making that investment. Everybody benefits from the Brent Spence corridor being fixed, even if you don't drive on it."

The real diversion, for Grayson, is the toll debate itself.

"Unfortunately, this conversation has become about tolls instead of whether we need the project or not," he said. "Nobody's 'pro-tolls, pro-taxes,' anything. We're pro-bridge.

"Our position is we need the project and it's important enough that, if it takes a toll, we support a toll," he said. "That's what the studies have shown so far."

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Ohio Department of Transportation estimate that each year of delay in the start of construction costs taxpayers roughly $75-$85 million.

If not tolls, then what?

Tolls are not the only option for funding major infrastructure projects, nor would they be the only financial foundation for a Brent Spence reboot.

Simpson, along with numerous others, has slammed the federal government for not contributing more to the project, especially given locally based congressional leadership -- namely, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and former Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-West Chester.

There is also the Highway Trust Fund, established by the Federal Highway Act of 1956, that is fed by a national fuel tax on automobile gasoline.

But the fuel tax rate hasn't changed since the early 1990s, something Simpson said needs to change.

Grayson also sees the fuel tax's stagnation as an obstacle for the Brent Spence project.

"All across the country we're struggling with this gas tax-funded road system," he said. "The challenge is that, with a gas tax, everyone pays into the pot, and then that money gets distributed, whereas, with a toll, it's a user fee.

"A gas tax is a different kind of toll; it's just another way to collect it."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and development for WCPO Insider. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur). 

T.J. Parker is a multimedia journalist for WCPO - 9 On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter (@TJParkerWCPO).