NKY cities repeat their opposition, but are Brent Spence tolls really a threat?

Posted at 7:05 AM, May 23, 2017

COVINGTON, Ky. -- At the beginning of this month, the city of Covington released a statement to Kentucky and Ohio officials reiterating the city’s opposition to the enactment of tolls as a means of funding improvements to the Brent Spence Bridge corridor.

The Brent Spence Bridge and its connecting roadways have long been included among the nation’s most urgent infrastructure concerns.

Covington, via a Northern Kentucky United coalition that opposes several aspects of the $2.6 billion bridge plan that’s been in the works for more than 20 years, is asking transportation officials to take measures to ensure safety, minimize congestion and divert traffic where possible.

“The (bridge) project has been stalled for quite some time without the use of tolls as a funding mechanism,” said NKY United spokesperson Marisa McNee. “NKY United believes that right-sizing the project and creating a more affordable project would be beneficial to the entire region.”

The May 10 statement from the Covington City Commission is the latest in a long line of communications from Northern Kentucky cities -  including Union, Alexandria, Ludlow and Taylor Mill - that all assert the same thing: We don’t want to deal with heavy diverted traffic from toll roads.

But the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and Ohio Department of Transportation, which are tasked with implementing the improvement project, haven’t had much to say about tolls, prompting some to wonder how real of a threat they actually pose.

“Quite real,” said McNee. “Currently, tolls are prohibited by the state of Kentucky for projects like the one planned for the Brent Spence Bridge. However, there are some officials and advocacy organizations who continue to insist tolling is necessary and they continue to push for Kentucky to allow tolls.”

The group foresees problems related to tolling that may have a direct economic impact on Northern Kentucky cities surrounding the Brent Spence.

“In general, tolling causes traffic diversion as people avoid tolls, which puts a traffic safety and maintenance burden on cities like Covington,” said McNee.

An ODOT spokesperson declined to comment, while Ryan Watts of the KYTC said Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin “understands the importance of the Brent Spence Bridge corridor to Kentucky’s interstate transportation system and recognizes the need to alleviate heavy congestion, enhance safety and improve cross-river mobility in the growing region.”

To that end, according to Watts, Kentucky has allocated $38 million for maintenance, repair and painting of the bridge in order to address both its physical condition and its appearance. Crews will begin the initial phase of maintenance and repair work this summer. The bridge is tentatively scheduled to be painted in 2019.

Officials are conducting an analysis study to help make recommendations for improvements and alternatives to the proposed plan.

One such alternative, the Eastern Bypass, has garnered attention from leaders and interested developers alike. The bypass would run east to west across the southern portions of Northern Kentucky into Ohio in an attempt to divert traffic from the Brent Spence.

McNee said concern over the size and scope of the bridge project is not limited to Northern Kentucky. State Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Mount Lookout, and Clermont County commissioner Dave Uible are two Ohio officials who have lent support to alternative plans.

“It is a concern particularly in Clermont County, where traffic diversion from tolling on the Brent Spence could heavily increase traffic on the I-471 corridor without any plan for mitigation,” McNee said.

The study will explore several other viable alternatives in addition to the Eastern Bypass and is set to be completed Sept. 30.

In the meantime, groups like NKY United remain vigilant in efforts to find a solution for improving the aging structure with minimal negative impact on Northern Kentucky communities.

“The project may have seemed like a good idea 15 years ago, but in retrospect ... it just doesn't meet the needs of the region from the Kentucky point of view. It's a plan designed almost exclusively to benefit Cincinnati at the expense of lots of communities in Northern Kentucky,” McNee said. “NKY United believes it's time for a robust discussion about how to better meet the transportation needs of the region, and that needs to include a serious discussion about a new plan for the Brent Spence Bridge corridor."