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Kentucky Governor Signs No-Toll Bill, Likely Sets Back Ohio River Bridge 10 Years

As promised, Gov. Matt Bevin signed the P3 bill that allows private funding, but bans tolls, to pay for the $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge project over the Ohio River that connects Covington, Ky. to Cincinnati. Now he needs to find the funding.
April 14, 2016, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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It would appear that Gov. Matt Bevin has dug himself into a hole. He has said that the 50-year-old Brent Spence Bridge is "critical to the nation," but has ruled-out the use of tolls to pay for a local share. According to the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), "outside of tolls, no other finance plans have emerged that would allow the project to move forward," notes a December article on the project.

"The governor has told Mark Policinskichief executive officer of the OKI that he will put together a financing plan for the bridge," writes Scott Wartman for the Cincinnati Enquirer, but "hasn't released a plan for the bridge other than allocating $38 million to repaint the bridge, make some structural repairs and study ways to improve traffic flow."

"We anxiously await that plan," Polcinski said. "He knows this project needs to be built and how important it is to the Commonwealth. He understands he obviously needs to put together a finance plan. The ball is squarely in the governor's court."

According to Jill Meyer, president of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, the "functionally obsolete" Brent Spence Bridge is "overcrowded, unsafe and a constant impediment to commerce and the important manufacturing corridor it creates." The Cincinnati Enquirer published a series of articles in 2012 detailing how obsolete and dangerous the bridge has become, though it had exceeded capacity shortly after opening in 1963, writes James Pilcher.

Originally designed to handle 85,000 cars and trucks each day, the bridge was regularly overcrowded with more than 90,000 vehicles by the close of the 1960s.

Bridge project opponents pleased with toll ban

More recently, Chris Wetterich of the Cincinnati Business Journal wrote on March 3 that "(t)raffic on the Brent Spence Bridge dropped from 167,000 vehicles per day in 2009 to 161,000 vehicles per day in 2013 to 152,233 vehicles per day in 2015."

“The likely reason for the reduction (on the Brent Spence) between 2013 and 2015 is due to the construction on I-75 north of the bridge that began in 2011..."

[O]pponents of the Brent Spence project as currently conceived – a new bridge next to a refurbished old one, plus 8 miles of highway widening on either side of the river – point to the falling Brent Spence Bridge traffic number and say it’s just another reason to question the rationale behind the project.

"The toll ban will likely delay the Brent Spence project by at least 10 years, and that pleased ardent toll opponent Steve Frank," the Covington Mayor Pro Tem,  writes Wartman.

He beamed with pride at the role he and other toll opponents played in delaying the new bridge. He believes a new bridge would suffocate Covington by not having direct exits to the city's business district and charging tolls to get there. He believes a $77 million repair job to the 50-year-old Brent Spence is all that's needed.

Toll ban likely to jeopardize federal funding

Wartman doesn't delve into implications for how the bill will impact the availability of federal funding, which he did earlier in an article posted here.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) indicated that the bridge project "would likely be considered a top contender" in a new federal transportation program for up to 25 percent of its costs," wrote Lisa Bernard-Kuhn last December.

The funds would come from the "Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects Program, part of the five-year Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act or "FAST Act." The program has $4.5 billion which "would be available for major highway and bridge projects across the country through a competitive grant process," adds Bernard-Kuhn. 

In other words, unless a new source of funding is found or the legislature authorizes tolls, it's likely that the two states will lose out on $1.125 billion.

The door is not entirely closed to new tolls. The legislation permits tolls to be imposed with "authorization from the Kentucky General Assembly," writes Wartman. A new analysis shows that use of tolling facilities has increased twice as fast as the increase in vehicle-miles traveled.

California budget analogy to another transportation user fee

Aside from the merits of the bridge project or reasons for opposing it, Bevin's signing of the bill is reminiscent of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signing of a bill to roll back the increase in vehicle license fees shortly after his inauguration as governor, having booted Gov. Gray Davis in the special 2003 recall election, particularly since Bevin's predecessor, Governor Steve Beshear, supported the tolls.

The roll-back of the VLF increase set in place a budget 'structural imbalance' of $6 billion that would dog the Hollywood actor-turned governor through both his terms in office, which he handed to his successor, Gov. Jerry Brown, to solve. He did, with the help of two temporary tax increases, but the VLF was never restored to its original amount.

Hat tip to Mayer Horn, Congestion Pricing Forum, University of Minnesota.

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Published on Monday, April 11, 2016 in Cincinnati Enquirer
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