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Tolls Expected on New Bridge Across Ohio River

"We're going to have to toll," Ohio Governor John Kasich told a packed news conference high atop the Radisson Hotel in Covington. Kasich joined Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and United States Sectretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to announced a memorandum of understanding between the two states that aims to have shovels in the ground on the long awaited Brent Spence Bridge project by 2014. In the background, the federally declared functionally-obsolete span connecting Covington and Cincinnati loomed.

"Some people around here say the federal government should come in and build this bridge. That's not going to happen," Kasich warned. The Republican governor suggested that tolls should not be in the headlines of the subsequent coverage of the news conference, instead arguing that the bipartisan, bi-state agreement is the bigger story. But with debate raging locally over how to pay for the bridge with or without tolls, Kasich left no room for doubt. The tolls, however, are not envisioned by the governors to be a permanent fixture on the new, $2.5 billion structure that will be built next to the nearly 50-year old Brent Spence Bridge.

"We don't want to have tolls on the bridge any longer than we have to," Beshear, a Democrat, said. Neither governor knew how much the tolls would cost or even how much the final price tag of the entire project would be.

The agreement the pair signed at the Radisson Wednesday calls for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) to establish a Bi-State Management Team to jointly oversee the project. The team will be responsible for evaluating procurement options, preparing a Major Project Initial Financial Plan required by Federal Highway Administration, procuring professional services when needed, maintaining a project website, and managing public relations.

KYTC and ODOT will be jointly responsible for costs associated with the investigation of project procurement options and work performed in Ohio under the agreement will be governed by the laws of Ohio. Work performed in Kentucky will be governed by the laws of the Commonwealth.

"We're going to build this as cheaply and efficiently as we can but it's going to be quality and the people are going to be proud of it," Beshear said. Beshear recently teamed with another Republican governor, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, to build two new bridges in the Louisville/Southern Indiana area. Beshear and Kasich also worked together to find a way to construct a new bridge that will connect Ironton, Ohio and Russell, Kentucky. That project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2015.

Covington victimized?

Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank threw a question at Kasich as the governors were answering reporters. After reminding the Ohio governor that he pilfered two of the city's largest employers through generous tax incentives (Omnicare and Nielsen Company moved from Covington to Cincinnati), Frank wanted to know if there would be plans for additional tolls on the bridge that links I-471 from Newport to Cincinnati. Otherwise, Frank suggested, drivers could bypass Covington altogether to avoid the tolls. Kasich dodged the question and drifted into a call for bi-state cooperation on improving the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport by luring low-cost air carriers and more international flights. The news conference abruptly ended after that.

Opposition to tolls made clear at news conference

Members of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party were present wearing pins that read No Tolls and handing out a news release of their own. The release calls for the federal government to pay for the new bridge in its entirety without tolls. "History tells us that the tolls will never go away and the fees will continue to increase," the Tea Party's release said.

"I'm disappointed in both governors," said Erik Hermes of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party. "(The federal government) has the money. It's a matter of them having the right priorities."

"Bridge will be built"

Though the news of tolls is disappointing to many, a new bridge is on the way to the region. "This bridge will be built," Secretary LaHood said. "This kind of bipartisan, bi-state partnership is the only way big projects will get done. This is a national project."

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D) wrote a letter to both governors released to the media. "Clearly, the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, one of the fifteen major interstate bridges which the federal government has labeled “functionally obsolete,” will improve the flow of traffic on this busy freight corridor and increase driver safety," Brown wrote. "While much remains to be done, recent federal reforms will streamline permitting and accelerate construction timelines saving taxpayer dollars. As these and other reforms are implemented by the Federal Highway Administration, I am hopeful that they will be utilized by both states."

The two-deck Brent Spence, which opened on Nov. 25, 1963, today carries the entire load of both I-71 and I-75 and two-way local traffic. Though structurally sound, it is classified as "functionally obsolete" because of its narrow lanes, absence of emergency shoulders and limited visibility on its lower deck.

Under the selected alternative design, the Brent Spence would undergo renovation and remain in service to carry two northbound lanes of I-71 on its upper deck and three lanes of northbound local traffic on its lower deck.

Kentucky and Ohio already have made significant strides toward realization of a new bridge. Preliminary design work has been completed, as has a federally required environmental assessment that resulted in a "Finding of No Significant Impact" (FONSI) by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in August 2012.

Written by Michael Monks, Editor & Publisher of The River City News (with pieces from a news release)

PHOTO: Governor Steve Beshear (L) and Governor John Kasich sign a MOU at the Radisson Hotel in Covington Wednesday/RCN