"As far as safety, study after study says it's more dangerous when people take other routes. There's academic studies that more people die as a result of raised tolls, simply because they avoid the roads and go to secondary roads."
Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank opposes tolls being used to finance the construction and operation of the approximately $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge project. That is not news. But now Frank is part of a newly launched coalition called Northern Kentucky United, a group that vows to fight toll proponents and any accompanying scare tactics.
But following Friday's announcement of the coalition, Frank used some ominous warnings of his own in promoting the effort, not the least of which was predicting more vehicular deaths, as in the quote above, should tolls be used.
The two-term city commissioner, described as "vice mayor" in the official press release even though that position does not exist in Covington, began posting to various Facebook pages promoting Northern Kentucky United, including to a group dedicated to improving Goebel Park in Mainstrasse Village. "How could Covington even afford a park, let alone police the area if the Brent Spence Bridge toll wipes out our riverfront businesses?," Frank posed to the group. "The average toll on an interstate bridge is $6.50 each way. What would happen to Covington if the toll was only half that much? Join (NKY United) if you care about your park."
Asked Friday whether he was using scare tactics of his own, Frank said no. "I think it will (destroy riverfront business)," he said of the proposed toll. "I've talked to the business owners down there who are ready to close up shop."
Some business owners are part of the newly launched coalition, which according to a news release includes Frank, the Northern Kentucky Democratic League, the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, Servepro of Kenton County, Toebben Companies, Bavarian Waste, the Independent Business Association of Northern Kentucky, and former State Senator and Secretary of Education & Workforce Development Joe Meyer.
“The economic impact of tolls on Northern Kentucky will be devastating to our hardworking families and small businesses," Meyer said in the coalition's announcement. "We’ll be paying as much as half a billion dollars in direct and indirect costs to the region. That’s not an acceptable price to pay for a project that should be funded by the federal government.” The coalition offered no sources for those figures.
One piece of information lauded by pro-bridge supporters is a survey that ranked the Brent Spence as the 7th most dangerous in the country, a notation that draws particular ire from the new coalition. "It's just not true," said Marisa McNee, of Northern Kentucky United. "There is no transportation authority in America at the state, local, or federal level that has ever ranked this bridge anywhere near being one of the most dangerous bridges in the country."
McNee said that she has requested that the Build Our New Bridge Now Coalition provide the data, but so far that request has gone unfulfilled. The coalition's website maintains that the bridge is safe, according to its most recent inspection. Frank also maintains that the bridge is not dangerous, though his current position conflicts with a public stance he took in 2012. In a letter to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet written by Frank and published in The River City News in May 2012, Frank wrote, "I am also very familiar with the need to do something about the bridge as it is our Police and Firemen from the City of Covington who must risk their lives on the Brent Spence Bridge both rescuing stranded motorists as well as investigating their demise when the all too frequent fatalities occur. We had another recent traffic death on April First. They are now so commonplace that it was hardly even mentioned in the media." He continued, "One additional point about the need to add capacity to the Brent Spence Bridge corridor, beyond the obvious need for increased safety of our motorists is to maintain the economic vitality of the nation, The Greater Cincinnati Region, and the Cities that compose the Urban Core on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River."
"Everything in life has a certain amount of risk associated with it," Frank said Friday when reminded of his 2012 letter. "I drive the bridge. I drove it three times today. It didn't scare me."
"I think we need a new bridge but if you toll it, you're just moving the disaster. In fact, you're going to create more of it. It will be on the secondary streets as people try to make time to avoid the toll. Every actuarial study says - and I research what I'm talking about - you will kill more people. More people will die. I wish it weren't true. There are academic studies. There was one reported on the Northern Turnpike. Every time they jack up the tolls, traffic increases on secondary roads and deaths go up. That's factual. It's not a scare tactic. It's real."
Frank, in the 2012 letter, also threatened to stop or at least delay the project if Covington's interests weren't met, particularly involving certain exit ramps and access points, and the belief that drivers headed south on the interstate should not have to make up their mind in Cincinnati about whether they want to come to Covington as that would prevent any sudden exit inspired by the visual appearance of the city from the highway. "I cannot support the building of any new span across the Ohio River and will do all in my power to stop or delay such a span despite its many other benefits. I am an elected official who represents the interests of the 40,000 citizens of Covington Kentucky and it is my sworn duty to defend their interests."
Frank has also called the proposed public-private partnership mechanism to allow for the collection of tolls to finance the bridge's construction "a financial disaster". He cites the financial failure of toll roads across the country and the recent bankruptcy of a tolling firm that operated a road in northern Indiana.
Meanwhile, as multiple candidates for this year's city commission race include an anti-toll element in their political platform and as all four city commissioners are on the record opposing tolls, only Frank was made a member of the coalition. "No, I didn't reach out to other commissioners," Frank said. "It's not because I didn't welcome them. "In my own efforts, because I'm in a unique political position, I seem to have reasonable relationships with everyone from the NAACP to Tea Party folks. I'm sort of my own man. I've got everyone from the NAACP to Tea Party folks talking to one another and they decided that various people with various interests would come together."
"I learned about it today," City Commissioner Chuck Eilerman said Friday about Northern Kentucky United, adding that he was "not particularly upset" about having not been included, despite his on-the-record stance against tolls. "The individuals involved, particularly Steve (Frank), are active and have their current attention focused on this and apparently he's been talking to some in other parties."
Is Eilerman supportive of the coalition? "I think so," he said. "I do oppose tolls. I think tolls would have an adverse effect on the city."
The coalition is collecting signatures through its secondary website, NoBStolls.com
. Since its Friday launch, the website shows that 193 people have signed it. The petition only indicates that the signers oppose tolls. What will be done with the signatures? The coalition has no immediate plans for them.
"It's to make it clear where Northern Kentucky's interests lie and how the people feel about this," McNee said. "The goal of it is to show anybody who needs to see it." There was no set goal or benchmark on a number of signatures, McNee said. "People will hear about it and sign up."
For tolls to be used for the bridge project, an act of the Kentucky General Assembly would be necessary. That effort was killed during the session earlier this year.
“Much of the Northern Kentucky delegation in the General Assembly fought hard against tolls last session, and we want to make sure they have public support to continue the fight,” Meyer said. “Northern Kentucky deserves an open, transparent discussion about the project, not scare tactics and fear-mongering. We intend to highlight Northern Kentucky’s opposition to tolls and hold pro-toll supporters fully accountable for misinformation regarding the safety of the Brent Spence Bridge.”
To read about the Brent Spence Bridge project with information from the Transportation Departments in Kentucky and Ohio, click here
Follow The River City News on Facebook, Twitter, or email us.
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Brent Spence Bridge