Editorial: Need for Brent Spence Corridor Project Not Going Away
Fri, 03/21/2014 - 09:51 RCN Newsdesk
On average, a commuter in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area spends 37 hours per year in traffic jams. That is according to the closely watched and highly regarded Urban Mobility Report issued annually by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.
Thirty-seven hours. Nearly the equivalent of a work week. It’s a lamentable and frustrating statistic, and it’s not going to improve on its own.
The largest single source of that gridlock is the Interstate-75/Interstate-71 Corridor, including the aged and overburdened Brent Spence Bridge.
Nothing is going to improve until dramatic changes are made in that Corridor, including construction of a second bridge to take some of the load off the Brent Spence.
Nothing is going to change the fact that the Brent Spence, which carries both interstate routes over the Ohio River and a measurable share of the nation’s commerce, also carries twice the volume of traffic for which it was built 51 years ago.
The need for action on the I-75/I-71 Corridor is obvious to anyone who has to drive it.
But in all the sound, fury and outright demagoguery over whether tolling is appropriate as a way to help finance the Brent Spence Bridge Relocation Project, this particular point has been drowned out: The Corridor will not – cannot – get any better on its own.
The real issue is not whether drivers want to pay tolls; it’s whether drivers want to keep paying the price of lost time, lost productivity and daily highway hazards with the Corridor as it is.
How best to finance the Brent Spence project is a legitimate and important issue that needs public debate and discussion. But the debate should be rational.
The Federal Highway Trust Fund, source of federal transportation funding for all the states, is nearly broke. Its revenues have been on a downward arc for years because the fund’s main source, the federal tax on motor fuels, has not increased in 21 years. Since 1993, it has been a flat 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline, 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel.
Congress, which has shown no appetite for raising the motor fuels tax, periodically bailed out the Trust Fund with a transfer of General Fund monies but always with great reluctance and always at the eleventh hour – playing havoc with the ability of Kentucky, Ohio and other states to carry out long-range planning.
Despite that history, it is apparent from public comments that many people in the region firmly believe the federal government should pay for the Brent Spence – 100 percent – because it is an important interstate project. And they hold out the unreal hope that Congress and the Federal
Highway Administration (FHWA) will eventually come to the rescue if Kentucky and Ohio simply take and hold a hard line on tolling.
In fact, demands on the Trust Fund have never been greater and promise to continue mounting, year after year. In addition to the Brent Spence, no fewer than 36 transportation “mega projects” – defined as costing $1 billion or more – currently are in the works around the United States.
Several are larger than the Brent Spence. All are moving forward with tolling as an element – or being considered as an element – of their financing.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and Ohio Department of Transportation seek the opportunity, working together, to deliver a badly needed infrastructure project to the Tri-State Area with a reasonable and workable financial plan.
But to do that, Kentucky and Ohio need new tools. One such tool is the ability, when feasible and desirable, to enter into Public-Private Partnership agreements – P-3, for short – with private-sector entities that can bring badly needed capital to a public project.
Congress delivered another tool to states with passage of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act – TIFIA – under which it is possible for states to obtain very low-cost loans that can significantly reduce overall costs of a mega project. That was Kentucky’s experience in obtaining a $452.2 million TIFIA loan for the Downtown Crossing portion of the Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project.
We are in the very early stages of the Brent Spence project’s financial planning. The “Initial Financial Plan” for the project – emphasis on “initial” – was submitted to FHWA on Dec. 31, 2013. The financial plan will undergo many changes over time. Kentucky and Ohio will aggressively pursue a TIFIA loan, for example.
Likewise, the $60 million included in Governor Steve Beshear’s recommended budget and Recommended Highway Plan for the Brent Spence project was a starting point – not the final word by any means – on level of funding for the project besides tolls. The Kentucky Highway Plan only covers six years. The question of what financing of the BSB will look like beyond 2020 – the sixth year – is yet to be determined.
The $60 million proposed by Governor Beshear would have provided for continued planning, right of way acquisition and other work to keep the Brent Spence project moving forward. But at the behest of legislators from Northern Kentucky, the P-3 legislation was amended in the Kentucky House this week to preclude any possibility of tolls for any interstate project between Kentucky and Ohio.
Then, not surprisingly, the House passed a transportation budget and highway plan that stripped away the bulk of the cash Governor Beshear had proposed for the Brent Spence and spent it elsewhere. The House left the Brent Spence with a $22 million federal earmark. But by federal law the earmark could not be spent for anything else, anyway.
To reiterate, the question is not whether drivers in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky want to pay tolls in exchange for a much-improved Brent Spence Corridor. The question is whether they want to continue paying the price of congestion, lost time and lost productivity.
Time really is money.
The budget and highway plan legislation have now moved to the Kentucky Senate.
It is our hope that a window of opportunity has not been slammed shut.
This editorial was written by Kentucky Secretary of Transportation Mike Hancock
Photo: Mike Hancock