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NKY CEOs Endorse Tolls, Public-Private Partnerships as Legislators Remain Unconvinced

Some of Northern Kentucky's most prominent business leaders came out Wednesday in favor of tolls and public-private partnerships as a means to construct the Brent Spence Bridge project.

The CEO Roundtable, a collection of a dozen local executives associated with Vision 2015, released a letter in support of moving forward on the project with tolls.

The Cincinnati Enquirer's Amanda Van Benschoten reports:

They also turned up the heat on Northern Kentucky legislators, who have remained steadfastly opposed to tolls. The legislative session underway in Frankfort now is considered a critical juncture for the fate of the project.

The CEOs said tolls are unavoidable, and instead of “politicizing, obfuscating and delaying”, lawmakers and the community should be working to minimize the impact they would have upon the region.

They also urged lawmakers to pass Kentucky’s House Bill 407, which would allow public-private partnerships for this and other projects.

“While we realize that some may oppose this stance, it is the most feasible one for making the bridge project a reality,” they said.

"As we stated earlier, the time for action is now. Now is the time for Northern Kentucky to make the difficult, yet important, decision to replace the Brent Spence Bridge. Legislators, we ask that you take the lead on this extremely important project for our region. Your communities - and the families that reside within them - are depending on you," the letter concludes.

It was signed by Bill Butler of Covington-based Corporex, CEO John Dubis of St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Toyota Vice President Mike Goss, Duke Energy (Ohio & Kentucky) President Jim Henning, Haile/US Bank Foundation CEO Tim Maloney, Citi Vice President Rob Strub, Bank of Kentukcy CEO Bob Zapp, and Dr. James Votruba, former president of Northern Kentucky University and chairman of the CEO Roundtable.

The Roundtable also recently endorsed the Common Core standard in Kentucky education.

Local legislators not convinced on HB 407

The piece of legislation introduced in the Kentucky House of Representatives last week was endorsed by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus held a public meeting on Saturday at the NKU METS Center in Erlanger where the Chamber's interim president, Covington business owner Brent Cooper, spoke in support of HB 407.

"The largest employers in the area and our smallest employers in the area are all in support of this legislation," he said. Cooper said that tolling is a separate issue and that public-private partnerships could be used to spur development in other parts of the region and could be beneficial to the expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, Gateway Community & Technical College, and Riverfront Commons.

"It's a tool in the toolbox to get these done in a more efficient way," he said.

Kevin Gordon of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party spoke Saturday, calling HB 407 "a bad bill" in its present form. He also spoke out against tolls. "Tolls are taxes, let's not forget," he said. "We are allowing the federal government and the governor to walk away from their basic responsibility of providing infrastructure."

Every financing plan released by the States of Kentucky and Ohio for the $2.5 billion project includes a tolling mechanism.

Covington City Commissioners Chuck Eilerman and Steve Frank expressed reservations with HB 407. "I would implore you to make sure that any P3 (public-private partnership) legislation does not facilitate the financing of the Brent Spence Bridge this session," Eilerman said. 

Covington is the most impacted by the bridge project, Eilerman continued, adding that details have yet to be worked out on how various access points will be affected.

"We're saying, let's take a breath here and wait till at least the next session before any legislation is approved to allow tolling on this bridge," Eilerman said. "We agree with our friends at the Chamber and others that a bridge is necessary but issues need to be resolved over time."

"Primarily it works best when you're talking about buildings," Frank said of P3 opportunities. "They are financial disasters of major proportions when it comes to transportation."

Frank cited multiple bankrupt or near-bankrupt P3 road and bridge projects from across the country. Frank suggested restricting P3 opportunities in Kentucky to things like convention centers and college campuses.

State Senator Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill) said he was not ready to comment one way or the other on HB 407 since it is still making its way through the lower chamber of the legislature. As of Wednesday, the bill sits in the appropriations and revenue committee. "It's got a long way to go in the House before it gets to us," McDaniel said Saturday. 

He did say he would not support a bill that enabled tolls on the bridge project.

State Representative Arnold Simpson (D-Covington) said the bill is complex. He said that while the bill could pass, he would hope that it would be amended. Simpson is on the record in wanting to wait at least a couple years before moving forward on the Brent Spence project as the region watches what happens in Louisville where tolls are being used in a double bridge project.

"To do the bridge now, it will necessitate the use of tolls. That's why I don't want it to happen," Simpson said. He added that he is "suspicious" of employing P3 for transportation-based projects.

-Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photo: NKY Legislative Caucus meets Saturday in Erlanger/RCN