|Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Ohio Governor John Kasich held a press conference Wednesday discussing the Brent Spence Bridge replacement project./PL|
Calling any further delay moving forward with a replacement plan for the Brent Spence Bridge a “roadblock for America,” Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Ohio Governor John Kasich unveiled their joint plan to finance the bridge project at a press conference in Covington Wednesday afternoon, and, as anticipated, tolls were the central topic of conversation.
“We will need both tolls and gas tax money to fund this project,” Beshear said early in his remarks, calling his and Kasich’s plan one that is “grounded in reality,” calling to task legislators and other political leaders who, they say, have turned the project into partisan kindling.
While the financial plan for the project will not see completion until the end of 2015, Kasich said, tolls will be a part of what he presents to Kentucky’s General Assembly for approval. Part of the toll structure, Kasich confirmed Wednesday, will probably include a frequent user discount, but he could not comment on what the cost of the tolls would be to drivers using the bridge.
Beshear did not indicate during Wednesday’s press conference what that discount would be, but he and Kasich both have previously hinted at a fifty-percent reduction in the crossing fee.
In addition to tolls, Beshear pointed to cost-cutting and cost-sharing strategies, again only generally. “We don’t know the specifics on cost-cutting,” he said. Beshear did point out that the Louisville Southern-Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project, another interstate bridge project recently spearheaded by Kentucky’s governor, saw a cost reduction from $4.1 billion to $2.3 billion throughout its planning phases.
Beshear and Kasich both committed Wednesday to pursue all possible cost-cutting avenues.
As for cost-sharing, the Governors announced Wednesday that Ohio and Kentucky would split the costs of the estimated $2.6 billion project evenly. How those costs would be split has been a burning question south of the river, in that Kentucky owns the two-level bridge. Kasich’s announcement Wednesday means that, even though Kentucky’s General Assembly will bear the burden of putting the plan into action, the Commonwealth will not have to provide all the funding.
Despite the governors mutual and repeated attempts to steer the conversation away from partisan politics, the plan they outlined seems to find its way back into the crosshairs almost instinctively.
The charge was evident right outside Covington’s Rivercenter, where Wednesday’s press conference was held, as NKY United — a coalition of Kentuckians who have expressed strong dissent against tolls as a financial measure for the bridge project — formed a protest line.
NKY United spokesman Kevin Gordon, leading the protest, says the economic strain tolls would have on Northern Kentucky are disproportionate to the benefit tolls would have on the project’s financial package.
“The math just doesn’t add up,” he said, arguing that tolling bridge users would have an impact on the region to the tune of as much $500 million each year the fees are in place. “When you’re paying a toll just to get into Covington, you’re not going to spend that money at the local coffee shop or movie theater,” he said.
“The federal government needs to step up to the plate and do their share,” Gordon added.
This sentiment was also a large part of the discourse surrounding the bridge during a public forum last week, where four of Northern Kentucky’s state legislators came out unanimously anti-toll.
But when asked about the other kinds of toll crossing fees would have on the region, Beshear charged, “We’re not going to leave Covington or any other town on this side of the river in the lurch."
Ultimately, for the two governors, waiting — for the federal government or anything else — is no longer an option. “You can’t wait on Washington to solve a problem like this,” Kasich said, pointing to “blind, extreme ideology” as what is impeding “real progress” on the project.
“We will gladly accept (federal) money,” Beshear added, “but we’ve been given every indication we shouldn’t expect it. We have to face reality,” and, for the governors, part of that reality is tolls.
"This project should have been started a year ago,” Kasich lamented.
In a statement issued before Wednesday’s press conference, Tom Williams, co-chair of the Build Our New Bridge Now Coalition echoed that urgency, saying, “We are very pleased to see the bipartisan commitment that Governor Kasich and Governor Beshear are making on the Brent Spence Bridge Project. We are that much closer to rebuilding this critical highway corridor and improving safety in our community."
The fact remains, though, Wednesday’s press conference was more a declaration of purpose than the unveiling of a specific plan, which remains one of opponents’ chief concerns.
Beshear committed Wednesday to having a cost-cutting strategy in place by March 30, nine months prior to presenting a financial plan to the General Assembly.