The Brent Spence Bridge opened in November 1963 connecting Northern Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio. The bridge was designed to carry 85,000 vehicles per day, but in 2006 it carried 150,000 vehicles per day. It is expected to carry 200,000 vehicles per day by 2025. The existing Brent Spence Bridge currently carries Interstates 71/75 over the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington, and is considered "functionally obsolete" as it does not meet current traffic safety design standards. The current plan calls for the rehab of the existing bridge to handle local traffic and I-71, and the construction of a new bridge to handle I-75 alone (KY bridge bill close to death in Senate, 2015).
Traditional Funding for Highway Infrastructure
Local officials have been debating a replacement bridge for a very long time, but without success. Historically the funding formula for such projects consisted of 80% paid by the federal government and the state comes up with the other 20%. The federal excise tax on gasoline of 18.4 cents per gallon and 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel is supposed to be used to fund such projects. According to a CATO Institute study, “more than 20 percent of federal gas taxes [which are supposed to go to highways] are spent on transit, and there is no guarantee that the remaining 80 percent goes for highways, as Congress often diverts some of that money to such things as bike paths, national park visitor centers, museums, and other local pork barrel projects.” The study also notes that “federal subsidies to [mass] transit are about 80 times as great, per passenger mile, as federal subsidies to highways (Transportation Cliff or Pothole?, 2014).”
The federal government would rather cram tolling down our throats rather than refrain from misspending the Highway Trust Fund. Frustration with the federal government’s unwillingness to pay for a new Brent Spence Bridge has caused our locally elected officials to turn to other means of funding local infrastructure projects, including public-private partnerships.
Public Private Partnerships
In the 2015 legislative session Rep. Leslie Combs (D-Pikeville) introduced a public-private partnership (P3) bill that will allow tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge. Public-private partnerships basically allow a private company to take a share of the risk and expense in a major public works project up front, with the hopes of getting reimbursed on the back end by a stream of dedicated revenue. In most road projects using such arrangements, that means tolls (KY bridge bill close to death in Senate, 2015).
Rep. Leslie Combs is the most recent addition to the “tolls for thee, but not for me” Caucus. When asked about Northern Kentucky’s opposition she responded: “they’ve had their day in court.” (N. Ky. Bridge toll foes concerned about bill, 2015)
Really? What a short memory Rep. Combs seems to have.
She spent most of last year arguing against tolls for her own constituents. The $750 million Mountain Parkway project was delayed in order to avoid tolls. Rep. Combs wants the project “done the right way” so it does not “burden people with tolls (The Frankfort Double Standard, 2015).”
Poll Shows NKY Opposed to Tolls as a Funding Option
According to new poll conducted on behalf of Northern Kentucky United, a majority of likely voters in Northern Kentucky oppose tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge by a 2-1 margin, with a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents opposed to tolls on the bridge.
The survey of 3,304 of likely voters was conducted during the evening of January 15th, 2015. Polling was conducted in Boone, Campbell, and Kenton counties by automated survey. The margin of error is +/- 1%.
Q1 "Do you support or oppose tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge?"
Support Tolls 27%
Oppose Polls 61%
Q2 "If there are tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge will you pay the toll, or use a different route?"
Pay the Tolls 30%
Use Different Route 61%
Q3 "Do you believe it is the responsibility of the Federal Government to maintain the Interstate System, including the Brent Spence Bridge?"
Q4: "Are you in favor of waiting for federal funding for the bridge instead of tolls, even if it delays the project?"
Rep. Arnold Simpson Battles Heroically Against HB 443
After Leslie Combs introduced her bill Rep. Arnold Simpson, (D-Covington), vice chair of the appropriations and revenue committee, tried to attach an anti-tolling provision to HB 443, as well as an amendment calling for a study into the local impacts of diverting traffic from the project and an amendment calling for Ohio and Kentucky to officially split the estimated $2.6 billion cost in half. But the full A&R committee defeated all three (Tolls still in play for Brent Spence Bridge, 2015).
"Tolls are an abomination ... and will unfairly burden the residents of my district and Northern Kentucky," Simpson said.
A similar bill containing the exception for P3’s to be used to fund the Brent Spence Bridge passed both chambers last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Steve Beshear due to the amendment attached by Simpson (KY bridge bill close to death in Senate, 2015).
This year, however, Simpson was not able to get the support he needed, even though he spent much of the House session leading up to the vote trying to garner support and even reviewing legal manuals to fight potential parliamentary maneuvering. Debate on the bill didn't even begin until nearly 5:30 p.m. and featured discussion on requiring a cost-benefit analysis as well as a study on how traffic would be diverted into Covington due to tolls (Bridge bill passes tolls, not banned, 2015).
Simpson was able to get three amendments passed, including requiring creation of a bi-state authority for what he called more local say in how the project was run, as well as a requirement to eliminate any tolls once the original construction costs were paid off on any project worth more than $100 million. In addition, his amendment requiring a cost-benefit analysis on such big projects also passed (Bridge bill passes tolls, not banned, 2015).
Simpson voted against the final measure, as did all but one of the Northern Kentucky caucus members present. State Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, voted for the final bill (Bridge bill passes tolls, not banned, 2015). It’s worthy to note that Koenig also voted in support of the smoking ban. A Libertarian candidate needs to step forward and contest his seat in the next election. Northern Kentucky needs to get rid of representatives that stand against liberty and freedom.
The Senate Squashes HB 443
A bill that would have allowed tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge is officially dead in the 2015 session of the General Assembly, Gov. Steve Beshear acknowledged publicly in March (Beshear declares bridge bill dead, 2015).
It's the second straight year that the so-called "public-private partnership" or P3 bill has been blocked, with a sizable portion of the Senate Republican caucus – including all four from Northern Kentucky – objecting to the bill. The bill died in committee in the Senate (KY bridge bill close to death in Senate, 2015).
Anti-toll activists welcomed the news and remained cautiously optimistic that the concept will not be passed at all.
"We've raised a large number of substantive questions that need answering and show this concept is far from ripe," said anti-toll activist Joe Meyer of Covington, who also has served as the state education secretary as well as in the state Senate. Meyer is one of the original organizers of the anti-toll group NKY United.
"They may have been talking about this project for years, but only have been discussing tolls in the last few years. And they have not addressed a lot of questions such as the cost-benefits to our region and the diversion impact on our local community," Meyer said, adding that preliminary estimates call for an additional 70,000 vehicles to use other bridges to avoid tolls, adding to traffic in Newport and Covington (KY bridge bill close to death in Senate, 2015).
Northern Kentucky United
If you are a concerned about the effect tolling will have on Northern Kentucky to fund a new Brent Spence Bridge, which includes cost for commuters, diversion to other roadways, and the local economy, you are not alone. Visit the site Northern Kentucky United (NKY United) and sign the petition to oppose tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge. Let the NKY Caucus know how you feel about tolling.
Another way the residents of Northern Kentucky can put a stop to this nonsense is to support a candidate for governor in the gubernatorial election that is opposed to tolling. Current Kentucky governor Steve Beshear has been an ardent supporter of tolls along with his Ohio counterpart John Kasich. According to the current field of candidates vying for the governorship they all say they are opposed to tolling (Bridge tolls? All KY governor candidates say no, 2015). The electorate needs to support a candidate they can trust who will not support the implementation of tolls to fund a new Brent Spence Bridge.
Finally, in order to evaluate alternative methods of funding our road infrastructure we need to roll back the Federal gas tax. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) introduced the Transportation Empowerment Act (S.1702/ H.R. 3486), which would turn back control of the federal highway program (including transit) to the states by incrementally decreasing the federal gas tax and the size of the federal program, and in turn empower the states to fund and manage their transportation programs and priorities—not those of Washington bureaucrats or influential lobbyists. The Transportation Empowerment Act would empower states by allowing them to keep and control their gasoline tax revenues, set their infrastructure priorities, control their transportation decisions, and partner with the private sector to meet local needs. Only then can we put the issue to rest and look for more viable options for funding our infrastructure.