The governors of Ohio and Kentucky said Wednesday they will work together to develop a cost-savings plan that will move the stalled $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge project forward, including the use of a toll fare that will be charged to drivers.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear held a joint news conference at the Metropolitan Club in Covington, Ky., where they declared that it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when” the bridge project would be completed. They called the project “critical for the country, critical for Ohio and critical for Kentucky.”
The Brent Spence Bridge, which carries traffic from Interstates 75 and 71, crosses over the Ohio River and connects Covington to downtown Cincinnati. About 172,000 vehicles use the bridge every day, including hundreds of Butler and Warren residents who commute to and from work in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, but the bridge was originally designed to carry just 80,000 vehicles a day.
Kasich said asking for users to pay a toll shouldn’t be an unheard of consideration.
“We’re going to build the bridge, and we’re going to use this newfangled idea that those who use the bridge ought to pay for the use of that bridge,” Kasich said. “This is really radical stuff. And if you live close to here, and you use the bridge all the time, we’re going to give you a break on what it costs you to use the bridge.”
Kasich, a Republican, and Beshear, a Democrat, have been working for months on this project and have accelerated their efforts recently because the mounting cost of delays is driving up the price tag. Beshear said $7 million would be added for every month of delay, and a five-year delay would increase the current cost of $2.6 billion by more than $400 million.
The governors said the project will be equally split between the two states, both in expenses and toll revenues. Pending approval by Kentucky lawmakers in early 2016, the states could select a project team as soon as late 2016 and begin construction as soon as 2017. Ohio lawmakers have already signed off on the project.
And if the Kentucky General Assembly puts in any anti-tolling legislation, Beshear said he will veto it.
Kasich said the Ohio Turnpike in Northern Ohio charges tolls for vehicles based on the size of vehicles, and it works there so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work for the Brent Spence Bridge.
“We’ve issued debt against it, we’ve gotten a billion extra dollars, our road projects, infrastructure projects have been fantastic, and we’ve paid for the retirement of the bonds with the tolls from the turnpike,” Kasich said. “We’re not talking about some new thing that we just thought up. User fees have been the order of the day for … I don’t even know how long.”
But Kevin Gordon, a member of Northern Kentucky United, said “tolls are not the answer for the Brent Spence Bridge.”
“It would be an interruption of traffic, and the only place along the I-75 corridor where you have tolls all the way from Michigan all the way down to Florida,” said Gordon, who is also the treasurer for the Independent Business Association of Northern Kentucky. “This is truly a national road, a national road of national and regional significance, and the federal government needs to step up to the plate and pay for it like they’ve done in so many other areas around the country.”
The governors said the plan for the bi-state, bi-partisan project includes:
- lowering the project’s price tag through innovative solutions in design, construction and financing;
- splitting costs and toll revenues evenly between Ohio and Kentucky; and
- providing a 50 percent discount in toll rates for frequent commuters
“Our commitment is listening to our citizens and challenging our transportation teams, and folks it’s grounded in reality,” said Beshear. “We will need both tolls and traditional gas tax dollars to pay for such a major investment in our future.”
The states’ transportation agencies are coordinating efforts to develop cost-saving solutions by March 30 and build a viable financial plan before year’s end. The plan is expected to include a public-private partnership to build, maintain and finance the project.
A 2012 environmental plan for the corridor was federally approved and called for building a new bridge downtown, revamping the existing Brent Spence Bridge and improving interstate approaches in Northern Kentucky and downtown Cincinnati.
The current plan for the double-decker bridge would double the number of interstate lanes across the river from eight to 16. It is believed this would relieve congestion responsible for major safety, mobility and congestion problems for the region.
Gordon said while the tolls potentially could be nominal for those who use the bridge, he feels it would only be an introductory fee. But he said the federal government needs step up.
“Whether it’s a toll or not, it’s a federal responsibility. When you look at the federal government, and we’re paying the amount we’re paying in federal gasoline tax – and they’re taking 33 percent and spending it on things other than infrastructure.”
If the federal government “comes up with some significant dollars, we will be thrilled,” said Beshear.
To which Kasich added: “And I will start putting a nickel under my pillow waiting for the tooth fairy with some more money.”
But Kasich said the region needs to have a functional Brent Spence Bridge.
“We are a region that makes things and grows things so it is essential to have a robust infrastructure,” he said. “Without funding for the Brent Spence Bridge, commerce and safety will suffer and we can’t have that. Our continued cooperation will help make this project a reality and keep it moving forward quickly.”
Gordon said backup on the Brent Spence Bridge is not just because of the bridge being “functionally obsolete,” which is what the Federal Highway Association’s National Bridge Inventory dubbed structure that opened in 1963. He said traffic studies show the congestion is in large part due to congestion on I-75 near Interstate 74 and Pfeiffer Road “and other places than the Brent Spence Bridge.”
“All of these things create backup on the Brent Spence Bridge. All we’re talking about is moving traffic through the Greater Cincinnati area. It doesn’t make sense to put three major highways onto one bridge going through the center of downtown Cincinnati,” he said. “We’re basically doubling down on a dumb idea from back in the 1960s.”
But Beshear said anybody who doesn’t want to pay a toll “can find six other ways to cross that river.”
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