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Chamber Proclaims Support for Covington in Toll Talks

The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce expressed its support for Covington's interests in a presentation to the city commission on Tuesday night.

Vice President for Public Affairs Adam Caswell laid out the Chamber's priorities for the 2014 Kentucky General Assembly session. Its consensus committee lists six projects as priorities and four of them are in Covington, with the Gateway Community & Technical College's urban metro campus being number one.

Those priorities also included an expanded Northern Kentucky Convention Center, Riverfront Commons (a project that stretches across multiple river cities), and the Licking River Greenway & Trails, as well as the Health Innovations Center at Northern Kentucky University and a new campus for the Carrollton Jefferson County Technical College.

"If you look at this list, these projects have been on there for a while and we continually come to Frankfort hoping for the checks to flow in and literally, for a decade, we came back empty handed," Caswell said. "How do we get these projects done? We've got to start getting to work on figuring out how to get these to work in hard times."

Caswell said the Chamber would support legislation that enables public-private partnerships, but asked that the commission separate that idea from its previous connection to tolling the Brent Spence Bridge project.
 
"A great example we see is the Banks project across the river (in Cincinnati), a project that transformed our region in the urban core," Caswell said. "We need the same tool in our toolbox."
 
He said the tool of public-private partnerships could be used to expand the convention center and mixed-use developments like the Banks.
 
"We would urge the City of Covington to support public private partnership legislation," Caswell continued. "This would not put tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge but it would spur private (funds) into some of our public projects."
 
The Chamber launched a high profile push for such legislation in January when it joined the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce in a plan called Build Our New Bridge Now.
 
Even then, Chamber President Steve Stevens said that Northern Kentucky legislators were against the public private partnership option because they believed it would inevitably lead to tolls. 
 
The Covington City Commission has gone on the record in opposition of tolls and public private partnerships in the form of a resolution passed in January.
 
Caswell made it clear that the Chamber has never endorsed tolls. "That is always the first point that is made when we have a discussion about the bridge," he said. "We think that tolling should be an absolute last option."
 
"But for the Chamber, we don't have the luxury of writing off every option that is out there. When our businesses face a challenge, they don't have the luxury of saying, 'too bad'. They have to go back and solve these problems. And that's the same thing this Chamber has to do with partners in our region like the City of Covington."
 
In October, State Representative Arnold Simpson (D-Covington) told the Covington Business Council that a new bridge wasn't needed right away. Caswell disagrees.
 
"There have been some conversations that we don't need a bridge," Caswell said, adding that that is not what he hears from the business community or from first responders. "We can't step away from the table, we have to be willing to negotiate, to compromise."
 
City commissioners have long been concerned that tolling to finance the bridge project would create congestion and possible damage to Covington's roads in addition to putting a bigger burden on the other spans. Caswell said that the Chamber would not support anything that adversely affects Covington.
 
"Widening streets, improving infrastructure have to be part of the deal," Caswell told the city commission. But, "The rhetoric of 'we don't need this bridge right now', that's not what the business community believes."
 
Now is the time, he said, because the cost of labor and construction is cheap and the governors of Ohio and Kentucky are both on board. "Let's figure out how to get the best deal for Northern Kentucky."
 
NOTES: Caswell also expressed the Chamber's endorsement of expanded gaming in Kentucky, tax reform, and an effort to fix the funding inequity Northern Kentucky experiences in the Commonwealth.
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Adam Caswell speaks to the Covington City Commission on Tuesday