Kentucky Considers Tolls to Fund New Bridges

Published July 1, 2008

One outspoken Northern Kentucky mayor warns steps must be taken “soon” to repair an aging bridge in his community and avoid a catastrophe similar to last year’s fatal Minnesota bridge collapse.

Nearly all parties agree the Brent Spence Bridge needs to be replaced. The bridge carries traffic on Interstates 75 and 71 across the Ohio River and links Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio.

There is far less agreement on how to finance a new bridge, estimated to cost more than $2 billion.

House Bill 689, which would allow tolls as one method for repaying bonds issued to finance construction of new interstate bridges, passed 84-13 in the Kentucky House but did not receive a hearing in the Senate–largely because of opposition from Northern Kentucky lawmakers.

Adamantly Opposing Tolls

“My constituents in Northern Kentucky feel the federal government should pay to replace the bridge,” said state Rep. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown). “Everybody up there pays the gas tax, and it’s unfair to ask Northern Kentuckians to foot the bill for this project.”

Thayer’s sentiments are mild compared with those of Covington Mayor Butch Callery, who adamantly opposes any plan to charge tolls for a new bridge. He calls toll-friendly proposals “reverse voodoo economics” and insists the federal government should fund needed bridges in Northern Kentucky and Louisville.

“Federal tax dollars appear to be abundant to fund a war and to build infra-structure in foreign lands, but some say we can’t use federal dollars to build our own American bridges,” Callery wrote in a commentary published by the Kentucky Post online. “Does that make sense? No, it does not.”

‘We Need New Bridges’

Response to toll proposals has been much more favorable in Louisville. A recent analysis by the Texas Traffic Institute ranked the city as having the third-worst congestion in the nation among mid-sized cities.

“The reality is, we need new bridges and we need new revenue streams to get it done,” said Kay Stewart, executive director of the Build the Bridges Coalition. “The public supports this type of financing rather than higher taxes or fees–and those basically are the options for new revenues.”

The coalition has been instrumental in keeping the Louisville bridges project moving forward. It includes representatives from 20 different Louisville businesses and organizations, including Mayor Jerry Abramson (D), UPS, and Ford Motor Co.

Planned are two new bridges and a rebuilding of what has come to be known as “Spaghetti Junction,” where Interstates 65, 64, and 71 come together near the Kennedy Bridge, which carries I-65 traffic between Kentucky and Indiana. While the Kennedy would still carry southbound traffic into downtown Louisville, a new six-lane bridge is planned to carry northbound traffic.

Money Budgeted

The state budget passed in April includes $231 million to keep work for bridge projects planned in Louisville on track. Budget language allows for nonstop electronic tolling as a future funding option.

The estimated price tag for Louisville’s bridges is more than $4 billion. Indiana would pay much of its $1.1 billion share with funding generated by a toll road in the northern part of the state.

Louisville’s East End Bridge is scheduled to open by 2014, followed by the downtown bridge in 2019.

‘Time Is Running Out’

The Louisville projects are ahead of plans for a replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge in Covington, which will cost between $2 billion and $3 billion. Time is running out, said Callery.

“If steps are not taken to correct the problem soon, I fear that another Minnesota Bridge collapse will occur in our own backyard,” Callery wrote in a recent commentary.

Considering what’s happening around the country–at least 30 states now have toll authorities–Callery may find his philosophical opposition to tolls clashing with the reality that engineering experts have indicated the Brent Spence Bridge will be adequate for only another decade or so.

One in four workers in Kenton County, Kentucky, directly south of Cincinnati, Ohio, used the bridge to commute to work in 2000, according to the most recent information available from the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

That number has likely increased significantly since 2000, as state transportation officials estimate traffic volume on the bridge increases by 2,000 vehicles annually. The bridge was designed to carry 80,000 vehicles per day when it opened in 1963, but it now carries nearly twice as many.

By comparison, the Mississippi River bridge that collapsed August 1 in Minneapolis opened to traffic in 1967 and carried 140,000 vehicles at the time it collapsed.

Bridge Judged Obsolete

The Spence bridge has no emergency lanes on either side–the state removed them in the 1980s so a fourth lane could be added–and less than a yard of space separates big trucks running side-by-side. It’s one of 15 major interstate bridges considered “functionally obsolete” by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory.

Technology may provide an answer for Callery and other Northern Kentucky elected officials concerned about local residents shouldering an unfair amount of the cost of a new bridge. Nonstop electronic tolling enables authorities to charge lower rates for residents. In addition, Stewart said, the technology will continue to improve, providing even better options during the next decade.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.