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Abridged to Nowhere: Short Presentation Offers Little Clarity For Covington and Bridge Project

The Brent Spence Bridge caused congestion inside Covington City Hall Tuesday night where the Commission Chambers was packed, every seat was filled, and additional folks stood around the room for a more than two hour-long meeting about the bridge project's impact on the City of Covington. The special meeting, which was repeatedly described as a "short presentation" was called to update the public and the three new members of the city commission, which took their official seats in the chambers together for the first time, on tolls and the current design plans. 

The lingering question of tolls (and how much they will be) will continue to linger. Only vague references were made by Kentucky transportation officials at the meeting which followed arguments from the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce president in favor of a public-private partnership, which would include tolls, and dissent from City Commissioner Steve Frank.

Though specifics on tolls were lacking, Robert Hans and Stacy Hans (who are not related) of the Kentucky Department of Transportation and Jim Riley of the Ohio Department of Transportation offered data in their presentation that suggested a new bridge could not be built until 2040 without tolls because large-scale projects have been mapped out and scheduled through the 2030s. 

Most of the presentation was a rehash of what most people already know: a design has been selected for the bridge project which will be built directly to the west of the Brent Spence Bridge. That design includes eight miles of interstate (of which, only 1700 feet is the actual bridge) and thirty-eight lane miles. Access to Downtown Covington is preserved through the retention of exits or collector distributors that places drives on Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, Pike, or Twelfth Streets. The City of Covington campaigned last year to preserve the Fifth Street exit from northbound I-75 and succeeded, though the effort added $5 million to the construction cost.

A portion of Lewis Street that was at one point expected to be removed, hampering access to Devou Park is one possible change. The planners are studying an alternative that would preserve the access while changing the current make-up of the intersection which is currently a Y formation but would become what officials call a less dangerous T.

"We will be looking at and working with the city and all communities to minimize the impact and delays from construction," said Bob Hans. He added that those items will become more specific once a more detailed design plan for the bridge is completed. 

There will be other studies, too, including the amount of tolls which could run as high as five dollars and as low as one dollar. The tolls would be assessed in some electronic form more than likely and would also be present indefinitely. "In a lot of ways the toll will always be there to deal with the maintenance," said an ODOT representative.

"In essence, we're being asked to sign a blank check," said City Commissioner Steve Frank. "Normally when someone buys something they like to know the price ahead of time." Transportation officials said that they will aim to keep the tolls as low as possible and ensure that non-local travelers pay their fair share. There may also be transponders and "frequent flier" options for quicker local travel. A fuller study that will map out a finance plan for the bridge project is expected to be completed toward the end of January. One suggestion from the officials was that studies have shown that while drivers will initially avoid a newly tolled road, after a couple months and deeper congestion on the alternative route, they come back to the main path.

Though the meeting was occasionally tense with snarky laughter meeting a lot of the officials' suggestions about tolls and with a barrage of questions from commissioners that were not fully answered, Mayor Sherry Carran aimed to strike a connection between the government officials and the community. "I want people to know these are not outsiders. These are people who have been involved in our community," Carran said. "These are not outsiders coming in trying to beef up their payroll. This affects them, too."

Before tolls could be placed on the highway in the manner intended, Kentucky would have to pass legislation related to public private partnerships, a move that Ohio has already completed.

Impact on Covington's economy also unclear

The City of Covington asked the University of Cincinnati Economics Center to study the impact the bridge may have on the city's business and residential community. A team of advisers and students spent between five and six weeks, including the holidays, analyzing the possible impacts. The full report will be not be available until April, but some initial findings were presented Tuesday night.

The team hosted what it referred to as a dozen stakeholders representing businesses and residents. Some of the statistics offered by the UC team included notes that half the city's revenue comes from payroll taxes, that there are 18,000 workers in the city, that nearly half of those workers are employed north of Twelfth Street and that two-thirds of them work north of Fifth Street.

The stakeholders have lived or owned a business in Covington for an average of fifteen years and use the bridge at least once a day. Asked to rank the importance of various aspects of the bridge project on a scale of one to ten, responses averaged 8.2 for the importance of the project on the region, 7.4 for the importance on the respondents directly, 7.8 for familiarity with the bridge plans, and a solid 10 for the concern about the project's possible negative effects.

None of those concerns would be assuaged Tuesday night where very little insight was offered. At this point, the UC team only offered the stakeholders' suggestions which include keeping the exit ramps open throughout the construction process, compensating businesses for possible relocation or enhanced signage, and relocating trucks. 

10,300 drivers use the Fifth Street exit daily while 21,600 use the Fourth Street entrance to the interstate daily. The team predicted that lodging and restaurant businesses would be most adversely affected but no specifics were offered. 

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photo: Crowd at Covington City Hall Tuesday night welcomed by City Manager Larry Klein/RCN

More media coverage of Tuesday's meeting in Covington: Cincinnati Enquirer, WKRC, WLWT

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