The Big Business Agenda for Tolling

The Brent Spence Bridge Problem

The elites and big business special interests in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are executing a propaganda campaign to convince the residents of NKY for the need to utilize tolling to fund a new Brent Spence Bridge. In spite of the failure to pass the public-private partnership legislation in the 2014 legislative session, tolling proponents remain undeterred.

The 50-year-old, double-decked Brent Spence carries Interstates 71 and 75 traffic. It is categorized as functionally obsolete because of its narrow lanes, lack of emergency shoulders and limited visibility. The bridge also carries double the amount of traffic it was originally intended for, although it is structurally sound, officials say (Kasich: Ohio’s done its part on Brent Spence Bridge, 2014).

According to the Enquirer replacing the 51-year-old Brent Spence Bridge is considered critical to the region’s future. The structure is outdated, unsafe and frequently congested. But it’s also the heart of our region’s transportation system, carrying not only local commuters but billions in interstate commerce every year. If the bridge is not replaced, business leaders fear our region’s economy will suffer in lost jobs and missed opportunities for new ones (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014).

Tolls and the 2014 General Assembly

When Kentucky’s Legislature convened in Frankfort three months ago, two things needed to happen for the Brent Spence Bridge replacement to move forward: an infusion of $60 million and passage of a bill to allow public-private partnerships. Neither happened by the time lawmakers left the Capitol. Instead, the project will receive just $29 million for the next two years. And Gov. Steve Beshear broke out the veto pen for the public-private partnership bill because it included a ban on tolls for the $2.6 billion project, a measure inserted by Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington (What’s next for the Bren (What’s next for the Brent Spence, 2014). It is worthy to note that Beshear's vetoing of the popular public-private partnership (P3) bill drew the anger of the state Chamber of Commerce (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014).

The governor, federal and state transportation officials, and local business leaders say tolls are necessary to build the project. And they all say the project is necessary to ensure the continued economic growth of Northern Kentucky and Southwest Ohio.

Ohio Opens the Door to Tolling to Fund a New Brent Spence Bridge

Ohio governor John Kasich came to Paul Brown Stadium and signed into law a bill that will allow for tolls to be collected electronically if a new bridge is ever built (Kasich: Ohio’s done its part on Brent Spence Bridge, 2014).

It was the strongest public show of force yet from the Ohio side of the river on the bridge project, which has been in the planning process for years.

Eight Ohio lawmakers stepped to the podium and called for the bridge to be built. Influential Cincinnati business leader Tom Williams did, too. And then Kasich, who continued to say tolls are the only way to pay for a new bridge.

Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, the heads of the high-powered Cincinnati Business Committee and Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and other business, political and transportation leaders filled a meeting room at PBS to near capacity (Kasich: Ohio’s done its part on Brent Spence Bridge, 2014).

“We have set down a marker for our friends in the Bluegrass State,” said Ohio state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township. “We have done our share. It is my hope our friends in the commonwealth will do its share in the near future.”

To Seitz and many others, the solution is simple: Northern Kentucky lawmakers need to show some leadership and take a hard vote on tolls for the good of the region (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014).

But Kentucky holds all the power because it owns the bridge – and Northern Kentucky state lawmakers continue to show no signs of changing their firm, no-tolls stance. Studies show a majority of daily commuters (63-65%) who use the bridge start in Northern Kentucky.

"I don't believe in throwing rocks at the Ohio governor and delegation," said Kentucky state Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, the Northern Kentucky delegation's most outspoken anti-tolls lawmaker. "I believe we all want to improve our community. But in large measure, the people they represent will not travel the bridge on multiple occasions (Kasich: Ohio’s done its part on Brent Spence Bridge, 2014)."

Tolls Support a Big Business Agenda

The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce named Brent Cooper, the President of C-Forward inc., to be their interim president last January. Cooper has written numerous guest columns in the Enquirer supporting big government solutions to local issues and has long been a supporter of tolling to fund a new Brent Spence Bridge. During his five-month tenure, Cooper worked to convince the region’s major employers and top CEOs to publicly support tolls (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014). Thanks to his influence some top Northern Kentucky executives and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce broke a years-long silence earlier this year and endorsed tolls (Kasich: Ohio’s done its part on Brent Spence Bridge, 2014). In fact, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce spent $128,434 lobbying the General Assembly in 2014 in support of the P3 legislation that would have made tolling to fund a new Brent Spence Bridge possible. (Who spent the most to lobby Frankfort?, 2014) Cooper and his friends would be happy for the cost of the bridge to fall on the backs of our local commuters that work in Cincinnati. He’s no friend to the residents of NKY. Thankfully it did little to influence lawmakers in this year's General Assembly, which ended in April without a finance plan for the bridge (Kasich: Ohio’s done its part on Brent Spence Bridge, 2014).

The big business agenda of pushing tolling to fund a new bridge is not limited to NKY. Cincinnati's business community is pushing forward with the Build Our New Bridge Now Coalition, formed two years ago to lobby lawmakers to fast-track construction of the bridge by using a public-private partnership. The coalition was formed by Duke Energy, Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments and the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky chambers. It has raised more than $2 million for lobbying and marketing.

Coalition co-chairs Williams and Bobby Fisher and Cincinnati Regional Business Committee President Scott Robertson said they plan to engage with Northern Kentucky executives leading up to next year's Kentucky legislative session (Kasich: Ohio’s done its part on Brent Spence Bridge, 2014).

The elites and big businesses in NKY and Cincinnati are trying to force the commuters in NKY to pay for a new Brent Spence Bridge through tolling. The residents of NKY should be appalled by their efforts.

The Corporate Propaganda to Foist Tolling on NKY

The Build Our New Bridge Now coalition of businesses is actually encouraged by what they saw in Frankfort this year: The business community coalesced around the project in a way that hadn’t happened before. The Northern Kentucky CEO Roundtable and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce both publicly endorsed tolls. Their members and other influential business leaders feverishly lobbied lawmakers and the governor – making phone calls, writing letters and emails, and visiting Frankfort regularly. Now, the coalition wants to get the rest of the community on board. The coalition plans a grassroots effort, from meeting one-on-one with toll opponents to using social media to make their case to the public (What’s next for the Brent Spence, 2014).

According to the Enquirer Northern Kentucky’s business community in the coming months will try to answer questions regarding the use of tolls and combat some of the misinformation floating around. The hope is that by educating the public on the project and why the region needs it, public opinion will begin to move their way – and Northern Kentucky lawmakers will follow.

“It’s not about lobbying Frankfort. The lawmakers will vote the way their constituents tell them to. Our success will be dictated by our effectiveness in uniting Northern Kentucky behind a common goal for building the bridge,” said interim Chamber president Brent Cooper. “We need a community dialogue that includes business, elected officials and the general public. We need unified strategy for ensuring the best possible deal for the region (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014).”

Do We Really Care What They Think?

According to the Enquirer the Bluegrass State is often seen as behind the times, but Northern Kentucky has always prided itself on being a little more forward-thinking. We’ve led the way on regionalism and on redeveloping the riverfront. We’re sounding the alarm on the heroin epidemic. And we’ve been quick to embrace emerging industries such as informatics. But on the top issue facing the Greater Cincinnati region, we are the ones now viewed as behind the times. And increasingly, public opinion is mounting against us.

From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like Northern Kentucky is stubbornly holding up progress on replacing the overcrowded, unsafe Brent Spence Bridge by refusing to accept the reality that tolls are the only path forward for the $2.6 billion project. Whether or not you agree with that view, that is the perception of us in Cincinnati, Columbus and even in Frankfort (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014).

So the residents of NKY are a bunch of hicks because we are concerned about bearing most of the cost to fund a new bridge through tolling? Why is it so progressive to embrace tolling rather than explore other funding options? We shouldn’t be embarrassed about wanting to explore more beneficial solutions. Unless Cincinnati, Columbus and Frankfort pay our tolls for us when we cross the bridge, we shouldn’t care what they think. The residents of NKY should not only be offended but insulted by the insinuation.

Are the Bridges in Louisville a Fair Comparison?

In the Kentucky Legislature, lawmakers from other parts of the state don’t understand why Northern Kentucky legislators think the Brent Spence Bridge should be exempt from tolls. After all, Louisville lawmakers had to take a tough vote on the issue in 2009 to get the Ohio River Bridges Project moving (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014).

According to the Enquirer Louisville and other communities across the nation have accepted the political reality that the federal government does not have the money to pay for such mega-projects, and they’ve decided that tolls are a small price to pay for new infrastructure that can help draw jobs and growth. And so the route forward would seem pretty clear. But to many Northern Kentuckians, it just isn’t that easy (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014).

I’ve heard the Brent Spence Bridge project compared to the bridges in Louisville and I don’t believe that is a fair comparison. The majority of the commuters come into Louisville via the bridges from Indiana. Therefore the cost of their bridges is falling on the residents of Indiana that work in downtown Louisville. In NKY 63-65% of the traffic consists of commuters going into and out of Cincinnati. Therefore the majority of the cost for a new Brent Spence Bridge will be paid by us. Don’t be fooled by this comparison.

The Federal Government Should Pay for a New Brent Spence Bridge

Toll opponents believe the project can wait a few years until the federal government agrees to pay for it. The bridge carries Interstate 75, a major national freight corridor, and Interstate 71 over the Ohio River. Nearly 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product crosses the river every year. The freight route is also critical to the local economy: An estimated 75 percent of the region’s jobs are located within five miles of the corridor. Such an important economic asset should be paid for by the federal government.

Toll opponents say the burden of replacing the bridge shouldn’t fall upon locals, but toll supporters say there’s no other way to get the project built. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville, one of the most powerful men in Congress, says the federal government is not going to pay for the bridge.

“It’s going to be resolved at the state and local level. It’s not going to be resolved in Washington,” he told the Florence Rotary last week. “I understand everybody’s frustration about this issue, but that’s an honest answer – it’s not going to be resolved in Washington.”

If tolls are ever to be used for the project, Kentucky’s Legislature would need to approve them because the state owns the bridge (What’s next for the Brent Spence, 2014).

I certainly hope that the residents of NKY remember that at the ballot box in November. It’s another reason not to vote for Mitch McConnell in the upcoming election.

Questions about the Impact of Tolls

Those who want to move ahead with tolls also have to accept a political reality: Northern Kentucky has a litany of questions and concerns that need to be addressed.

For one, what would the toll actually be? A rate of $1 to $2 has been proposed for commuters – not the $5 that some are publicly floating – but Northern Kentuckians need specifics. And where along the Interstate75 corridor would the toll actually be imposed (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014)?

Another big unknown is the impact upon Northern Kentucky’s largest city: Would tolls decimate Covington’s dining and entertainment businesses, as some city leaders have suggested? How could that be avoided? Nobody has offered an answer.

“I know the business community on both sides of the river see us as obstructionists, but I disagree. I think we’re taking a prudent course. Until some of these things are answered, I don’t think we should go blindly down that path,” said state Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who attached the anti-toll amendment to the P3 bill (Bridge taking toll on NKY image, 2014).

Simpson, for one, says he wouldn’t rule out voting for tolls at some future date, but he doesn’t believe the case has been made for doing so now.

He wants answers to questions like how construction and traffic diversion would affect Covington, and whether the scope of the project could be scaled back to save money, as with Louisville’s Ohio River Bridges project.

That project, originally estimated to cost $4.1 billion, was scaled back to $2.4 billion, though tolls will still be imposed. Simpson says he also wants to wait and see how tolls play out there before he’d vote for them here.

“I think it’s irresponsible of us not to take this time to look at these issues,” he said. “Give (legislators) information. We’re not going to make a decision that’s going to have an adverse financial impact on Northern Kentucky unless we have clear, convincing evidence that that’s the only way to go. And they have not made that case, as far as I’m concerned (What’s next for the Brent Spence, 2014).”