Despite 'fake' infrastructure list, here's why Trump might still make Brent Spence a priority

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-25 15:05:28-05

COVINGTON, Ky. -- A wall isn't the only thing he's promised to build.

President-elect Donald J. Trump made a long list of promises on the campaign trail last year. One was to address the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstate 71/75 over the Ohio River and is one of the busiest transit corridors in the nation.

Then late Tuesday, it was reported that the Trump transition team had compiled a list of 50 "Emergency & National Security Projects" that would take priority under the new administration, with the Brent Spence Bridge listed in the No. 2 spot.

Politico later reported that list's legitimacy was questionable, according to a former Trump advisor, and that, while it might have been circulated among congressional members, it was not drafted by the transition team:

Even still a closer look at some other hints dropped along the campaign trail suggest the new chief executive could make the aging span a top priority for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

While Trump hasn't laid out a concrete transportation and infrastructure plan -- and likely won't until later this year -- he and GOP lawmakers have been dropping hints about how the incoming administration aims to "transform America's crumbling infrastructure."

A number of factors suggest the Brent Spence Bridge project could take high priority under Trump's administration: Beyond his specific mention of the bridge during a campaign visit to the Tri-State, Trump has also nominated for Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who sat on George W. Bush's cabinet and is a Kentucky resident. She's also married to U.S. Senate Majority Leader and senior Senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell.

Not to mention, Washington-based newspaper The Hill just last year called the Brent Spence the nation's top "infrastructure emergency," citing overcrowding, congestion and increased risk of collision along the span.

Three P's...

Trump's campaign website specifically points to bridges, saying more than 60,000 spans in the U.S. are "structurally deficient."

Officials with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet emphasize that, while the 54-year-old Brent Spence Bridge is structurally sound, it's "functionally obsolete," meaning the configuration on and approaching the bridge cannot safely and efficiently accommodate the approximately 180,000 vehicles that cross the bridge each day, even after converting the bridge's emergency shoulder lanes into travel lanes in the mid-1980s.

A 2009 study found that the bridge carries roughly 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, equating to about $147 billion in globally traded goods, according to the KYTC and the Ohio Department of Transportation.

But for local business owners like Brent Cooper, president and CEO of Covington-based IT firm C-Forward, the bridge comes with a cost.

READ MORE: Brent Spence ranked nation's No. 1 'infrastructure emergency'

"We estimate the bridge costs us about five hours in billable time every day," Cooper told WCPO. "That's leaving early for meetings, being late for appointments or missing appointments because we can't get from point A to point B in a timely fashion." He estimates lost billable time totals to about $150,000 for his business each year the bridge goes unfixed.

The current proposal -- presented jointly by both states' transportation departments -- calls for building a second bridge that would sit alongside the Brent Spence, and widening the interstate between Dixie Highway in Fort Wright and the Western Hills Viaduct on Cincinnati's West Side. It would cost an estimated $2.6 billion.

"Funding is always going to be an issue no matter how you look at anything this size," said Bob Yeager, chief engineer for KYTC's Northern Kentucky district.

"Something's got to be done," he said.

To pay for projects of this scale, Trump's plan will likely rely heavily on incentivizing the private sector to get involved, in the form of $137 billion in federal tax credits given to firms that invest in national infrastructure projects.

The jargony term surrounding this approach is "public-private partnerships," and it's an idea Kentucky lawmakers have been tossing around for some time.

"We no longer have any federal money, state money, or local money, or any borrowing capacity. Those options aren't there anymore," said former Kentucky State Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, who sponsored a bill passed last year by the General Assembly that prioritizes such cooperation between the state and the private sector.

"(The private sector) can do the project today," she said.

The law makes Kentucky one of 33 states that have on the books some form of "P3 legislation," as it's often referred to, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Now retired from the General Assembly, Combs tours the country educating other state governments on Kentucky's approach.

It's an approach State Rep. Dennis Keene, D-Wilder, says is one of the most innovative in the country.

"Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are expanding faster than the tax dollars we generate, so this allows us to do these projects early and allows us to attract the good-paying jobs that are coming in maybe at an earlier rate than they normally would," Keene said.

"We're really excited about where Kentucky's place is in P3 legislation," he said. "(Trump's plan) needs to be explored. We don't know all the ins and outs of it yet, but on paper, it's very encouraging."

Combs agreed: "It has merit and possibility," she said.

Tolls, though?

Another term that floats around P3 discussions: tolls -- a dirty word in Northern Kentucky these days.

That's because tolls are one of the most common ways the government can pay back private investors when a road or bridge project of this sort is completed.

"There's no way you could possibly do it without tolls, unless the federal government would step up and give us two or three billion dollars," Keene told WCPO. "They're really the only way to get a private entity to come in and pay for it.

"If they can't toll, they won't build the bridge," he said.

But the toll discussion could continue to obstruct any movement on the Brent Spence Bridge project, particularly because some local lawmakers feel tolling the bridge would place an unfair burden on Northern Kentucky taxpayers.

"People who live in Kentucky and work in Ohio will pay for it," said State Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who has been outspoken in his opposition to tolls since the idea was first introduced. "It's not fair for our commuters to pay (a toll) and the Ohio commuters also working downtown not to pay."

IN DEPTH: Louisville bridges re-ignite Brent Spence toll discussion

Kentucky's P3 bill was first introduced in 2015, but was rejected because it could have led to a tolled Brent Spence Bridge, Combs said. The bill passed the next year thanks to an amendment banning the use of tolls on any road or bridge project connecting Kentucky and Ohio.

Keene said that provision sets the Brent Spence project apart from other similar bridge replacements that used tolls, such as three bridges spanning the Ohio River between Louisville and southern Indiana.

The law would need to be repealed if tolls were to finance the Brent Spence.

Another hurdle, Keene said, is that the Brent Spence project would have to be retroactively added to the state's six-year road plan in order to be eligible for a public-private partnership.

Keene -- who formerly served as the vice chair of the General Assembly's budget review of transportation -- said he doesn't see the state as a viable primary source for funding, estimating that the $2.6 billion project would take approximately 25 percent of the state's total transportation budget for the next 20 years.

"(Northern Kentucky is) important, but we're not that important to the whole state," Keene said.

Does Trump have enough time?

Road and bridge projects are often regarded as some of the slowest to initiate and complete. A common criticism of President Barack Obama's two terms was that the road projects made possible under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- such as the 10-year overhaul of the Mill Creek Expressway along Cincinnati's I-75 corridor, just north of the proposed Brent Spence project -- were consistently slow to get started.

"One of the major complaints is how long it takes for projects to be ready for bidding," Chao said during her Senate confirmation hearing last week. "So the issue is not only how to fund infrastructure projects, but how to increase the pipeline of available projects."

Trump's plan calls for cutting the "regulatory red tape" often associated with infrastructure projects, but has not gotten too specific about what that means.

Keene said he's optimistic that we could see a new Brent Spence corridor before Trump leaves office -- that is, if he wins a second term.

"At the very least, we're probably six years out, even if we got it going today," he said. "Yes he could get it done in two terms, provided he gets two terms.

"And once a project gets started, they usually get finished," he said.

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

Rose-Ann Aragon is a multimedia journalist for WCPO - 9 On Your Side. Connect with her on Twitter (@RAragonWCPO).