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A Possible Change in Dialogue on Bridge Project Emerges at Mayors Group Meeting

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(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".

"A third version - "
 
"What is the relevance?," Wiest shouted. "The relevance is we have one resolution in front of us today. I'm not offering that today. This is what I'm offering."
 
"There is a process that we adopted," Carran said, before continuing with her disagreements within multiple versions of Wiest's resolution.
 
She then turned her attention to Commissioner Frank, who had spent the past couple weeks referring to Carran as "the Mayor from OKI (the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments)" following her vote against Covington's resolution and saying that tolls are likely inevitable.
 
"Everyone thinks Commissioner Frank is the strong voice for the bridge. He offers a lot of good points and I do let some things go," Carran said. "What I want everyone here to know is the City of Covington, back in 2007 and 2008, we were already working with (Kentucky Transportation Cabinet) Division Six, working on the alternatives to make it the best for our city."
 
"That happened long before Steve Frank got involved."
 
Carran then wanted to discuss comments made by fellow mayors on Facebook. Chairman Meier asked if it was relevant.
 
"It is," she said. "(Ft. Wright Mayor) Joe Nienaber said I am hesitant for the group to take positions. I believe this resolution of "no tolls" will be detrimental to the City of Covington."
 
And then this: "Many of you can say you oppose tolls," Carran said. "Privately, you say you know tolls will be a part of it. The discussion has to change from anti-toll to whether we need a bridge or not and if we agree, let's discuss the best way for it to be designed and funded. Right now this anti-toll camp has totally taken it over and that is not helping the City of Covington. The reality is, tolls are going to be a part of it. If we come together and seem unified the federal government will start paying attention to us."
 
She said the region seems "dysfunctional" currently. "Twelve years ago we lost funding for a bridge because we weren't unified. I don't support your resolution because it does exactly what Mayor Nienaber was concerned about."

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.

Additionally, "I happen to own a business in Covington," said Neinaber, owner of Granite World in Covington's Westside, "so I have a little perspective."
 
"Today when I leave here to go down to my business to sell my product on a retail basis, people who come in from Cincinnati will not have to pay a premium for the pleasure of seeing my product that they can see at twenty-five places across the river," he said. "I'm not thrilled about adding a tax on my business in the City of Covington. I want to have a competitive playing field. Tolls will not be a good thing for small businessmen on this side of the river."
 
As for the traffic conditions in Ft. Wright, Mayor Carran countered that Covington is already dealing with increased traffic on Greenup Street and Scott Boulevard as drivers aim to avoid back-ups in Ft. Wright. Nienaber disagreed.
 
Commissioner Frank added that "the design of the bridge is to make Covington choke on traffic".
 
"I don't question anyone's motives," Frank said. "I think we should follow the outline of (State Representative) Arnold Simpson to wait. Nothing should happen in 2014. If you toll the bridge, Lewis Street is taken off the grid and there is no access to Devou Park. Folks in Park Hills, where are you going to be? Kenton Hills?"
 
Chairman Meier suggested that a possible resolution to be considered by the Mayors Group should maybe be whether the group wants a bridge at all.
 
"I drive over the bridge two to four times a day and believe me, if I have to leave to go to Cincinnati between seven and nine instead of my early six o'clock venture, I'd be willing to pay $4 to get across it in fifteen minutes instead of forty-five minutes," Meier said. "How long should we wait? Is traffic going to get better in 2015 than it is today? Are the streets in Ft. Wright or Ft. Mitchell or Park Hills going to get any less congested if we don't have a new bridge? We're trying to build a bridge that will handle the traffic in 2020 and 2030. That's the question here, people. Instead of coming out with this resolution like it is now, if someone is going to file a bill, let's look at that bill and oppose that bill. Nine cities say they are against tolls. Why is the Mayors Group even getting involved?"
 
Only eleven of nineteen participating cities and entities were present at Saturday's meeting, Meier said.
 
"The question is, do you want a bridge or not? If we don't get a bridge soon, you won't have to worry about people coming over to Covington, especially during the day because they're not going to want to cross 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.

"This is a good investment for Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati, however you slice it," Cooper said. "All economists agree that building bridges and roads is a good thing for the economy."
 
"As you consider a do-nothing approach of 'let's just wait', that's worked out really well for us so far," he said sarcastically.
 
Continuing, Cooper said that thirty-five percent of businesses in Northern Kentucky are related to logistics and distribution in some way. He cited a report last week in the Courier-Journal in which FedEx announced a thousand new jobs in Louisville where a tolled bridge project is underway.
 
"Without improved infrastructure, businesses will expand in areas where there is good infrastructure, quality of life and predictability," he said. "I'm not leaving Covington but we won't expand here. I love Covington and Northern Kentucky but I will not expand in Covington if traffic gets worse and worse and OKI predicts. I can't. It's bad business."
 
"I know the concerns about the tolls, I get it. But don't kid yourself. We need a bridge and this talk of no bridge is really counterproductive."
 
"We're here talking about how we may not need a bridge," Cooper said. "That needs to change."
 
Tom Litzler, director of government and business relations for Remke Market, asked Cooper for evidence of how a new bridge would benefit Remke more than "taking tolls out of the pockets of their customers."
 
"We're not build-a-bridge-at-any-cost," Cooper said. "But we're also not no-tolls-at-any-cost. If we do nothing, your delivery charge will go up, your employees will spend more time in traffic. Thirty minutes in traffic is a gallon gas. That's three bucks. Doing nothing is going to cost us a lot more. I get where you're coming from. I have the same concern. A dollar toll is going to cost my business something I'm not paying today."
 
Cooper urged anti-toll leaders in the room to consider moving the debate from a strong "no" on tolls. Commissioner Frank and Mayor Weist both disagreed and said that their position could lead to a better deal for the region.
 
Though, Wiest offered up that the strategy could eventually lead to a "maybe".
 
"What they hear down state is that they're OK with tolls now so let's make them pay for it," Wiest said.
 
"Whenever you get into a negotiation you never give the other side their bottom line until you know what you're getting in return," Frank said. "That's the advantage of no. You guys want to foolishly give in before you know what they're going to give us."
 
"I would also say that down state, they hear that they are giving us something and they're hearing that we don't even want a bridge now," Cooper said. "I hope you recognize that doing nothing, delaying this project only costs us all."
 
The financing plan proposed by Governor Steve Beshear suggests that nearly all of the bridge construction would be financed by toll revenue bonds but Mayor Carran said that is "strictly a placeholder so our project doesn't have to work its way back up again."
 
The meeting concluded with Chairman Meier suggesting that Wiest and Cooper meet to discuss this issue in full and with Cooper offering support to Taylor Mill Mayor Dan Bell's position that east-west traffic in Kenton County also needs to be addressed.
 
Editor's note: Ft. Mitchell Mayor Chris Wiest adds in a comment, "The resolution was no a 'no to tolls' resolution from the first version to the last. There were no material changes. Second, the exact version of events were that there was a motion to approve; died for a lack of a second, then there was a motion to table the resolution (the same resolution) for the March meeting, which passed."
 
This information was left out of the original version of the article. Wiest also commented, "There was no rules violation; Mayor Carran either did not understand the bylaws, or deliberately misread them - the bylaws of the group allow for non-material changes to be made up to and including the meeting. You failed to include that in the report; you likewise failed to include in your reporting that the resolution was tabled for next month and will be taken up (and passed) then. The votes are there to pass it. 9 of 18 jurisdictions in Kenton County have no toll resolutions. We need to stop accepting the notion that tolls are the only way to get this done. And this issue far transcends Covington, it is a regional issue. The entire meeting was video recorded, so what was said can be pretty easily figured out."
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
 
Photo: Kenton County Mayors Group meeting Saturday in Independence/RCN