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Scheper: Let's Bridge Our Differences on Brent Spence & Get On With It

Today our community is in the midst of a very contentious debate over an issue that holds our entire region’s economic future in the balance. We are deeply divided on how to pay for the $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project.
 
I have lived in Northern Kentucky my entire life, including the last 38 years in Covington. Like many of you, I have crossed the Brent Spence Bridge countless times, and waited in gridlock during the seemingly never-ending projects on I-75 and the bridge. These projects have been necessary due to the growth our region has experienced since the bridge was built. But now, even after several major renovations, this vital transportation corridor has reached its limits. Maintaining the status quo will slow the growth of our regional economy.
 
This debate has led us to a crisis situation, one we must resolve.
 
To move the project forward, Governors Beshear and Kasich recently outlined these steps: cut costs without jeopardizing public safety, share costs and revenues equally, and provide a 50-percent toll discount for the frequent users of the bridge. I support their plan, and here are my thoughts:
 
Facing the Brutal Facts
 
When I was appointed Mayor of Covington in October 2011, the city was facing a financial crisis. We began by developing a list of the most pressing issues facing the city, the brutal facts. Next, we developed a plan of action. We accomplished a great deal over the following months because we recognized that the crisis could be resolved only one way, by working together.
 
The most significant brutal fact is that currently 160,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day, twice its original design capacity. By 2040, traffic is expected to increase to 250,000 vehicles per day. While the bridge may be structurally sound, those who drive the bridge pray they don’t have to stop because there are no safety lanes. Emergency personnel have told me their greatest fear is responding to a wreck on the bridge, even greater than entering a burning building.  
 
Another brutal fact is that delays will increase the cost of the project by at least $80 million per year due to inflation alone. In the meantime, economic development in the region will stagnate as traffic congestion increases. Plus, for every 30 minutes you are stuck in traffic, your car will use about one gallon of gas, wasting both your time and your money. If you multiply that by thousands of cars every day, our region’s lost productivity is significant.
 
Asking for Federal Assistance    
 
Opponents to tolls have said, “let the federal government pay for it”.  
 
That would be great but it is not realistic. The highway trust fund is essentially bankrupt. Congress has not increased the federal gasoline tax in the last 22 years so we cannot meet the demand for new projects and ongoing maintenance.  
 
According to U.S. Transportation Secretary Foxx, there are more than 30 priority national transportation projects costing over $100 billion competing for federal funding. He has made it clear that those communities that do not include tolls as part of the funding solution will be at the bottom of the list.  
 
Kentucky and Ohio will provide funding from their share of federal and state gas tax revenues. However, Kentucky’s gas tax is decreasing by as much as 10 cents/gallon, reducing revenue by as much as $650 million over the next five years. Kentucky shares nearly half of its gas tax receipts with county and city governments. This decrease will be felt on a local level. There are not enough federal and state dollars available to fund this project.
 
We need to include tolls in our financing plan. 
 
Generating Revenues
 
I did my own projections based on data provided by OKI, and found that the toll rates as generally discussed ($1 for frequent users, $2 for through traffic and higher amounts for trucks) could generate $170 million per year based on current usage. It is important to note that only about 25-percent of the projected revenue generated by tolls comes from local commuters.
 
In addition, I spoke to the CEO’s of two national trucking firms who both said that time is money, and their firms would pay tolls to ensure their trucks keep moving. I also talked to several business owners who use the bridge many times each day. They too said they are prepared to pay a reasonable toll to speed their service deliveries. So before we say no to tolls, consider how the trucking industry and through traffic would account for 75-percent of the projected revenue from tolls. 
 
By the way, this project will use state-of-the-art, modern technology that allows you to pay tolls while maintaining your highway speed.  You will not be stopping at toll booths.
 
Moving Forward  
 
I support the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project. I propose we request $700 million from the federal government to fund the cost of the new bridge and to refurbish the existing bridge. This portion of the project amounts to about 27 percent of the total project cost. Having both states and the federal government share the cost of the entire project would demonstrate a partnership approach to solving this crisis that is sorely needed in this country.
 
Should Kentucky and Ohio receive additional federal grants, this funding could be used to reduce the toll burden for the local community. Additionally, establishing a minimal toll for frequent users should reduce significant diversion to other bridges. We should also insist that the states maintain control over toll rates and consider deeper discounts for the low-income population, which I understand is the plan with the Louisville bridges project.  The Kentucky General Assembly must appreciate the impact that decreasing gas tax revenues have on all highway projects throughout the commonwealth. Indeed, they should consider raising the gas tax to adequately fund these projects.  
 
Now is the time to take action. The Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Project will ensure that our vital transportation corridor continues to accelerate growth in our region.  
 
In my office I have a faded Polaroid taken in 1961 of my family posing with a distinguished gentleman. We were visiting Washington DC and my dad arranged a visit with Congressman Brent Spence. What would the Honorable Brent Spence say about this ongoing debate? I suspect he would say, “Get on with it folks - time is money!”
 
Chuck Scheper is the former mayor of Covington and is chairman of Bexion Pharmaceuticals