A Possible Change in Dialogue on Bridge Project Emerges at Mayors Group Meeting
(Editor's note: This story has been updated at the bottom of the post)
An effort to have the Kenton County Mayors Group to go on the record opposing tolls as a financing mechanism for the Brent Spence Bridge project ended with calls for the conversation to drift toward one question: Does this region need a new bridge or not?
Ft. Mitchell Mayor Chris Wiest presented the resolution that read in part: "The Kenton County Mayor’s Group is adamantly opposed to tolls, or “private-public partnerships,” which enable tolls, whether imposed by private entities or public government."
The resolution also urged the mayors group to oppose the $2.5 billion bridge project in its entirety if the only way to accomplish its construction is through tolls, "since the harm to the Northern Kentucky Region through the use of tolls, and ultimately the Commonwealth of Kentucky as a whole, far outweighs any benefits."
With legislation possibly being introduced in Frankfort this week that would enable the project to be tolled, Weist said it was urgent that the group consider and approve the resolution at the Saturday meeting.
After nearly two hours of debate and conversation, the resolution died for lack of a second. No vote was taken.
"Nine cities have come out against tolls," said Crestview Hills Mayor Paul Meier, chairman of the group. "I would hope that would hold more water than the Mayors Group where you hear all these questions and dissension. I don't feel the mayors group holds that much clout but evidently we do. Maybe I should be proud of that."
Regardless of the Mayors Group's perceived clout, its monthly meeting on Saturday at the Independence Senior Center was unique in that it featured elected leaders in favor of moving forward on the project at least in some capacity, even if just through better dialogue, as well as representatives from the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the business community, and vocal toll opponents like Mayor Wiest.
The debate was tense at times.
"It's amazing to me that the only time this group has out with your concern about the impacts on Covington (was Saturday)," said Mayor Sherry Carran, who bucked the other four members of the Covington City Commission at its most recent meeting when she voted against a resolution that was framed as being against tolls. Carran later said that the resolution was incorrectly summarized on the commission's agenda and that it did not oppose tolls outright and that while she stands by her remarks that the dialogue regarding the project needs to change, she should have voted with her fellow commissioners.
"There was nothing from this group when there weren't tolls involved," Carran continued. "You only spoke up when it became a toll issue. First of all, (Covington's) resolution does not currently oppose tolls - "
"It will on Tuesday," Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank interrupted.
"Steve, I'm talking. You'll have your moment," Carran said. She said the resolution emerged because of a public conversation on Facebook between Wiest and Frank "wanting to put me on the spot".
"You all thought I had voted on tolls. What I said when I voted on that resolution, I said I do not like tolls. I never once said I supported tolls. The whole discussion has taken us off track. (Wiest's) resolution calls out a lot of things that I am really concerned about."
Carran called out language in Wiest's resolution that said the Brent Spence Bridge is not dangerous. "That is downright wrong," Carran said, adding that Covington police and fire are called there twelve times a week. "I can see the bridge from my house. I see them three or four times a week. Every time our emergency responders go to that bridge, they're putting their lives on the line."
She also took exception to what she perceived to be placing more importance on the possible traffic impacts to suburban cities. "It makes it sound like all those other things are more important than Covington," Carran said.
The Covington mayor continued, criticizing Wiest's revision process for the resolution, arguing that it violated the Mayors Group bylaws related to resolutions, specifically a newer rule pushed through by Wiest.
"Regarding your resolution, you are the one who had a resolution changing our bylaws about how resolutions are put forth and you said yourself that there should be no changes after the Thursday before the meeting. Your last change came on Friday," Carran said.
She said the original copy was sent out Wednesday evening and then a revised version came out that removed these lines:"certain special interest groups including the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce have advocated for tolls" and "Duke Energy will benefit from the taking of property" and urging "the General Assembly to reject special interest legislation".
Neinaber said that his position has been that members of the Mayors Group have an official voice through the minutes of their respective city council meetings. "I never come here and try to represent that I'm speaking on behalf of the City of Ft. Wright," he said. His council has unanimously approved resolutions opposing tolls multiple times and he said Ft. Wright likely has the worst traffic conditions of any city in Kenton County, an issue that he believes would worsen with tolls on the bridge.
Carran returned to the discussion. "(Commissioner) Frank mentioned the Lewis area, going up to Park Hills. That is one of our major concerns," she said. "Division Six is working to do their best. The anti-toll discussion has stopped everything. There is no more design work. Everything is at a hold pattern because the anti-toll discussion has stopped everything. We want to concentrate on the things we need to change to make this bridge a better project, not just for Covington but for our surrounding communities."
"Nobody in this room wants tolls," said Kenton County Commissioner Kris Knochelmann. He said there is a need to fix the infrastructure from I-275 all the way through Downtown. "We have to get past the argument of who's got the biggest need and start talking long-term. The feds are not going to fund it above and beyond the money the state of Kentucky already gets. We need to come together and say the need is for the infrastructure of the bridge."
Knochelmann also said a separate argument is to have the federal government fix its infrastructure funding mechanism. "But we've really got to stop the infighting because it looks silly at the rest of the state and gives everyone else a reason on why not to move the discussion further," he said.
"Tolls are going to be hated but we have to solve the problem with DC and everybody in Frankfort getting that (Northern Kentucky) wants its economy to grow and to fix the traffic issues in all the cities."
A study released last week by the University of Kentucky Center for Economic and Business Research indicated that tolls used on the Brent Spence Bridge project would have little impact on traffic congestion in Covington. The study was commissioned by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Interim Chamber President Brent Cooper attended Saturday's meeting and addressed the mayors where some members present had suggested the study was designed to give the Chamber the outcome it wanted.
"Some say the business community is slow to take a position and some say we have taken a position and neither is the case," Cooper said. "We need to understand all the facts on this and after being told by elected officials that there isn't hope for the federal government to foot the bill, we decided to go outside the area and get an unbiased opinion."
"Despite what's being said, our group did not know the answer in advance." Cooper said the Chamber asked: Would the project kill Covington if the project was tolled or if a sales tax was increased to fund it?
"The resolution before you today is troubling because in our opinion it is inaccurate and shortsighted," Cooper said. "It states (the bridge) is not dangerous. It is a dangerous bridge. This bridge is the seventh most dangerous bridge in the country for accidents. Think about that. That's California, Texas, New York. Our bridge is one of the worst."
"You need to talk to your emergency responders about that. People die on that bridge."
Cooper also owns a business in Covington, C-Forward on Madison Avenue.
As for diversion through the city, "I understand there is a debate on that but this is where we're coming from: Businesses know that time is money and doing nothing is going to hurt us. We're not going to grow as quickly as we would otherwise."
"Part of the reason we located in Covington is because we be around anywhere in Greater Cincinnati in thirty-five, forty-five minutes," Cooper said. "We see the impact every day of traffic. Our employees tell us every day how it gets longer and longer."
He argued that seventy-five percent of the one million businesses in Greater Cincinnati are within five miles of I-75 and that a study by OKI suggests that the bridge project would create 30,000 new jobs and offer a return on the investment of five hundred percent over twenty years.