One reason why plans to construct two bridges across the Ohio River in Louisville are much further along than plans to replace the aging Brent Spence Bridge that carries traffic on Interstate 75 across the Ohio River between Covington and Cincinnati is because the business and political leaders in Louisville are much more united on the project than the political and business leaders Covington and Cincinnati are on replacing the Spence bridge that exceeded its designed capacity years ago and constantly causes prolonged long traffic jams.
The difference between what the business community wants to do in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky and what legislators in Ohio and Kentucky say they are willing to do became evident during a recent meeting between leaders of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Kentucky lawmakers. When the meeting was called to discuss the Chamber’s legislative agenda for the 2013 Kentucky General Assembly, replacing the Brent Spence bridge dominated the meeting.
The bridge linking downtown Cincinnati and Covington is considered functionally obsolete by federal standards, and the current timetable calls for completion of the $2.4 billion bridge project in 2022. But businesses are campaigning to get it done earlier and are proposing ways to fund the costly project that legislators say they cannot support.
The chamber, which represent the business community, is proposing a public-private partnership to help pay for the project, but to legislators, a public-private partnership will require tolls on the new bridge, which they adamantly oppose. In fact, many lawmakers at the meeting said they would need assurances that tolls wouldn’t be used as a funding source before they could support the Chamber’s proposal.
Chamber officials said tolls aren’t inevitable with a public-private partnership, pointing to options such as a gas tax and vehicle registration fees. Lawmakers, however, expressed skepticism.
“The only way that a public-private partnership is viable is if there is a funding source for that public-private partnership, and in every situation that we’ve seen in Louisville and other areas that have advance public-private partnerships, there have been tolls associated with it,” said State Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas. “I do not support any legislation that will lead to local citizens being burdened with the cost of building the bridge.”
But Tom Voss, a business leader who chairs the chamber’s transportation committee, correctly pointed out the needed for a new bridge is not a “problem that will fix itself. If we don’t solve the problem now, things will only get worse. People’s everyday lives will change. We will literally choke on our own congestion.”
State Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, said, “I’m not a supporter of any mechanism that could result in tolls. I think it’s a Trojan horse. If it is a public-private partnership, it’s going to be tolls, regardless of what the proponents state.”
Simpson also said he thinks federal officials are mainly responsible for funding the bridge, and he doesn’t think the project needs to be rushed.
“I have hopes that eventually Washington will return to its senses and recognize the freeways were intended to be free, with the exception of the gasoline tax we all pay when we fill up, and they will assume their responsibility of levying sufficient revenue so we can maintain not only this bridge but all of our highways throughout the country,” Simpson said.
Given the current moods in Congress, that could be wishful thinking. With Congress looking to cut billions of dollars in federal spending, this is not the time to expect much help from Uncle Sam on a costly new bridge, no matter how much it is needed.
Rep. Fischer is wrong when he says local residents on both sides of the Ohio River should not be expected to pay for the new bridge. While federal help certainly will be needed and should be forthcoming, the people and businesses of Cincinnati, southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeast Indiana have the most to gain from replacing an outdated bridge with one better equipped to handle current traffic volumes and that is much safer. It is much more fair to ask taxpaers who are the most likely to use the bridge to pay more for it than taxpaers in California, Alaska and Oregon.
Having legislators immediately turn a deaf ears to new ways of funding the bridge does not do anything to reduce the amount of time it takes to replace a bridge that should have been replaced more than a decade ago.