The Build Our New Bridge Now Coalition, a relatively new organization that is trying to convince leaders in northern Kentucky that private financing would be the best way to speed up the construction of a new Ohio River span to replace the aging Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati, has picked up an important and influential ally: The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Johnna Reeder, who is chairwoman of the coalition, was joined by state transportation officials in Erlanger Tuesday as they recommended the private funding option to area leaders. They said a public-private partnership is the only way to get the $2.4 billion new bridge for the Interstate 71-75 corridor built in a timely fashion.
In fact, with a private-public partnership, proponents have said a new bridge could be built by 2018. Call us skeptics, but under no circumstances can we see the bridge being completed in only five years. Litigation alone could delay the project for that long, and given the history of controversy surrounding the costly new span across the Ohio River between Covington and Cincinnati, officials can expect a multitude of legal efforts to change, delay or even abolish plans to replace an outdated bridge that carries thousands of more vehicles each day that it was designed to handle. Snarled traffic on the bridge during the morning and afternoon rush hours have become the norm and are getting constantly worse.
Reeder said a private-public partnership is the only realistic way of getting the new bridge built in the foreseeable future.
“The realistic piece is that there are no more earmarks at the federal government,” Reeder said. “I wish we could go get a federal earmark, but we can’t.”
Opponents have argued the private-public partnership would mean tolls on the bridge, which they adamantly oppose.
Many fear tolls would hurt northern Kentucky residents and businesses. Builder Matt Toebben said he feared tolls would cost northern Kentucky thousands of residents and billions of dollars.
“I don’t want to see northern Kentucky killed off with the stroke of a pen or one mistake,” Toebben said. “I want to see the bridge built. I hope we can build it as quick as possible, but please fight the tolls. ... In northern Kentucky, this toll bridge will hurt us forever. It’s not one year. It’s forever.”
Transportation official Robert Hans says private financing doesn’t necessarily mean tolls. He said other states have used “availability payments” similar to bonds, which means a private company puts up the money initially, but gets it back with interest.
“Without giving us all the tools in the toolbox, it’s going to constrain the possibility of moving the project forward,” Hans said. “It’s the bottom line. We have to look at all options. Tolls may be the best option. Availability payments may be the best option.”
A toll of $1 or less could be a viable option on a new bridge, but anything more than that could be a burden to those who must use the bridge to go to and from work each day. It is one thing to pay a $3 toll to cross a bridge when traveling across the country, but to pay such a high toll twice a day would be a burden.
A private-public partnership eventually may prove to be the best way to speed construction of a new bridge, but right now it is shaping up as yet another obstacle to a new bridge that is badly needed for those of us who live on both sides of the Ohio River.