"There is no doubt in my mind that the City of Covington will be the big loser on the bridge project if it is tolled."
State Representative Arnold Simpson reiterated his opposition to tolls to fund the Brent Spence Bridge project during a Covington Business Council luncheon at the Madison on Thursday.
The Democrat was joined on a panel by Republican State Rep. Adam Koenig (Erlanger) and Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel (Taylor Mill).
All oppose tolls to fund the project currently.
"I am against tolls, but (for) building a new bridge," Koenig said. "So everything I say, put in that little box there." Koening said that the federal government could pay for a new bridge, for which plans call to be constructed next to the existing and functionally obsolete Brent Spence, but he doesn't expect that to happen. Neither did anyone in the audience Thursday as evidenced by an impromptu show of hands Koenig asked for.
He also seemed pessimistic about the Commonwealth of Kentucky footing the bill. "Does the state have enough in its road fund to do it? Theoretically, yes," Koenig said. "Are the rest of the parts of the state willing to give up their chunk? Probably not."
A new bridge under construction in Louisville connecting Kentucky's largest city to southern Indiana will be tolled. "Do you think Louisville is going to say, he, we'll pay tolls on our bridge but you don't have to on yours? Probably not," Koenig said.
Both Simpson and Koenig said that there was no need to build the new bridge right away.
"I have been told from a safety component that its useful life is twenty years," Simpson said. "Let's wait, let's see what happens in Washington." Simpson conceded that earmarks are not politically popular in DC but that one was used on behalf of Senator Mitch McConnell for a dam in Paducah in the bill that allowed the federal government shutdown to end. "They're saying, no earmarks. ...I don't buy into that."
"Traffic isn't going to get any better," Koenig said. "If you look at some of the (Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments) projections, traffic will get worse till you get to the point in 2040 where it will take an hour to get anywhere. Not across the bridge, anywhere."
He suggested that citizens urge their federal representatives to consider a raise in the gas tax which has not been touched, he said, in twenty years, or "just to come up with the money".
"It's a federal responsibility to get this bridge built," McDaniel said. "A four dollar daily toll for someone to go to and from work for someone who lives in Northern Kentucky, you're talking about someone spending a thousand dollars a year. By the time you throw in tax, you're taking an additional three percent of the average annual income."
McDaniel also doesn't see the federal government stepping up to build the bridge, he said. He believes the answer to the funding questions lies somewhere between the feds and current toll proposals.
"We're part of a larger region, the Greater Cincinnati region and what's good for Cincinnati is good for Northern Kentucky," Simpson said. "The question of the bridge, to me, is one of fairness. Nowhere in Kentucky are we faced with the prospect of a large number of Kentuckians paying a fee in addition to the gas tax for the privilege of operating their vehicle on the interstate."
In Louisville, Simpson said, the role is reversed where workers from Indiana will pay a great deal of the tolls as they come to Kentucky to work.
Other issues facing the General Assembly
The three legislators touched on other issues that they will fight for during the 60-day General Assembly session in Frankfort early next year.
"One thing we are striving to do is create a mechanism where we get our fair share of money in Northern Kentucky," Simpson said. "We're a donor region and quite candidly we will always be a donor region. (But) I think it's important to attempt to create pathways so we can open discussions to make sure we're getting a fair return on our tax dollars.
Simpson identified transportation dollars as one area where Northern Kentucky is shafted by Frankfort. Northern Kentucky University was another example.
"NKU is a dynamic university but it can do more if we fund it properly," Simpson said. "It's been underfunded since its inception." Simpson will argue for outcome-based funding where universities receive money based on metrics like graduation rates and freshman retention.
"If we do that I am sure the funding inequities we have seen in universities will be reversed," he said.
McDaniel argued that Northern Kentucky would have more clout in Frankfort if more people voted in gubernatorial elections.
"In Northern Kentucky we do a poor job of voting for governors," McDaniel said. "I've looked at the statistics for the last three election cycles and I can tell you, there are years we show up at half the statewide average."
"If Boone, Kenton, and Campbell Counties showed up regularly, we'd be electing the governors."
Meanwhile, both McDaniel and Koenig said they would be pushing for prevailing wage or right-to-work legislation while Simpson would focus on restoring rights to felons convicted of nonviolent crimes.
Thursday's event was hosted by the Covington Business Council, sponsored by Time Warner Cable, with author Robert Hudson serving as emcee.
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: (Left to Right) Sen. McDaniel, Rep. Koenig, Rep. Simpson/RCN