Ky. legislature key cog in Brent Spence Bridge development

CINCINNATI - The next move in the Brent Spence Bridge project – arguably the Tri-State's top transportation priority – is up to the Kentucky legislature.

If the project -- slated to cost between $2.4 and $2.8 billion – is to proceed on schedule, then 2013 will have to be the year to secure the necessary funding.

More specifically, Kentucky legislators will have to get comfortable with the idea of not only bridge users paying for the project through tolls but also with allowing for the creation of a public-private partnership to get the job done.

By March, the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet expect to release their joint evaluation on financing and construction options for a new bridge corridor. The efficacy of the evaluation is essential for the construction plan, local officials said.

"Basically, ODOT as well as the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are currently evaluating financing options for the project, including the evaluation of tolling options and costs in addition to other potential sources of financing," said Sharon Smigielski, ODOT's District 8 spokesperson.

Lawmakers in Kentucky are going to kick it into high gear this year, said Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, who serves on the advisory committee for the project.

"You're going to see a lot of planning work done from a legislative perspective. You're going to see the debates happen and the votes cast," Portune said. "I would expect all of that to occur over the next 12 months."

Ohio has the ability to form public-private partnerships and implement tolling, thanks to legislation already passed, while Kentucky lawmakers still need to adopt similar legislation to fund the bridge, Smigielski said.  There are 33 states that have adopted public-private partnership legislation for the development of transportation infrastructure, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

If funding is secured early this year, ODOT hopes to have the project shovel-ready by mid to late 2014, in line with Ohio Gov. John Kasich's and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's expectations, Smigielski said. Out of the total sum for the project, the new bridge structure alone could cost anywhere between $450 million and $670 million, according to ODOT.

Originally designed for three, 12-foot wide lanes in each direction in 1963, the double-deck truss bridge was expanded to accommodate increasing traffic demands in 1985 by eliminating emergency shoulders and narrowing the existing lanes to add another lane in each direction, according to ODOT.

The expansion increased capacity by 25 percent from 100,000 vehicles per day to 150,000, but it's not enough. Almost 30,000 trucks use the bridge per day, according to ODOT.

The idea to use highway tolls as an option to fund the project has been floated occasionally in the past. Such an approach is more common in the Northeast and in the northern part of Ohio on the Ohio Turnpike. However, the idea gained more momentum when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Kasich and Beshear met late last year and made it clear there will be no new bridge without tolls.

When Kasich, a Republican, and Beshear, a Democrat, signed a cooperative agreement pledging to make a new bridge a reality, the idea garnered support from the transportation community, Portune said.

Portune echoed the sentiments of both Kasich and Beshear when they said tolls are necessary to build the bridge. Federal dollars have traditionally funded 80 percent of large infrastructure projects while local sources were responsible for the remaining 20 percent.

"Those days are over," Portune said.

Legislation must be adopted in Kentucky before any federal funding is requested. Plans had called for a start date in early 2015, but Kasich and Beshear said construction will begin a year earlier. Federal funding will include a combination of grants and loans.

"They both firmly etched in stone that construction will begin in 2014 and that's kind of the outward barometer," Portune said.

It remains unclear if any Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) funds, the $105 billion federal transportation bill signed by the president in July 2012, will be used to help fund the bridge corridor project, but Brian Cunningham, spokesperson for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, said the bill addresses how infrastructure projects of national significance are funded and developed.

"Some of the provisions in there are really focused on consolidating the funding silos that existed previously and streamlining project development," Cunningham said. "We're just now getting to the point where we're getting direction on how to apply on some of those changes."

Political posturing, which marked bridge developments spanning the last 18 months, is not likely to continue with such vigor in the new year as state leaders are expected to push their caucuses to adopt financing plans.

Nestled in the middle of the districts of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., the bridge collected much political attention, particularly when President Barack Obama visited the span in September 2011. Obama asked Republicans to get on board with his $447-billion American Jobs Act before thousands at a concrete mixing facility in Cincinnati.

The project begins just south of Dixie Highway in Northern Kentucky and stretches just north of the Western Hills Viaduct interchange — about 5 miles of work in Kentucky and about 3 miles in Ohio.

Existing issues within the corridor construction will address include the curvature of the roadway, expanding shoulders and the ability for the driver to see well enough ahead in case of emergency. One of the goals is to limit rear-end and side-swipe crashes on the highway, according to ODOT.

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