"I think we all need to take a deep breath relative to this issue and hit the reset button."
State Rep. Arnold Simpson (D-Covington) said Wednesday that we in this region are all on the same team and that it is time for a civil discussion about the Brent Spence Bridge project. "We want to enjoy robust growth, we want to create jobs and have fellowship among the community, and have a good relationship with the business community and the government," Simpson said. "We need to have a civil discussion on this issue."
Simpson was joined by fellow Rep. Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger) and State Senators Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill) and Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) during the Covington Business Council's monthly luncheon. Wednesday's legislative preview, moderated by author Robert Hudson, forecasted what to expect during the upcoming short session of the General Assembly early next year.
Earlier this year, a plan to approve public-private partnerships that would have, among other things, allowed for the collection of tolls on the estimated $2.6 billion bridge project, was shut down after facing heavy opposition from Northern Kentucky legislators.
"My position is well known," said Simpson, an ardent opponent of tolls. "I've been on the record for years. I'm not saying I'm right, that's my belief." He said the ultimate responsibility for the bridge project lies with the federal government and the fact that the National Highway Trust Fund is depleted is a Washington problem, not a local problem. "They have to use other revenues to augment those funds from their vast array of taxes," Simpson said. "It's a project clearly of national significance."
On Wednesday, Simpson was not alone in sharing that belief. "I'm not gonna be for tolls," Thayer said, "and I know Governor (John) Kasich would like Northern Kentuckians to build the bridge for Ohioans to use. Do not try to convince me to be for tolls because I will not."
McDaniel said that when the issue arose in the session earlier this year, he received an large amount of green slips (transcripts of constituent phone calls) with seventy opposed to tolls and eight for. "You will find no issue that united the Northern Kentucky delegation than our opposition to tolls," said McDaniel, a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2015 on a ticket with Agriculture Commissioner James Comer who is seeking the governor's office.
"It's time for a fundamental reset in this conversation," McDaniel continued. "Reasonable minds have gone down to the point it's no longer productive. It is not succeeding. It will not succeed in the future."
McDaniel said that in 2015 a new governor will take office and will appoint a new transportation secretary and a new transportation budget will be written. "We need to reevaluate the interstate infratructure that serves Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati and make solid decisions about what moves us forward," the senator said. "There is a degree of urgency here, but the decision we make will be a decision that lasts after everyone in this room is dead. It is a seventy year decision."
Koenig said that Ohio has already determined how it is going to pay for its portion of the bridge project, and it is now up to Kentucky to figure out how to pay for its share. "The federal government could come in with two-point-five billion and Ohio would take off their plan to toll it, but that's how they're planning to pay for their portion," Koenig said. "Talking about whether there will be tolls on the bridge is moot (because Ohio has determined there will be)." Koenig said different businesses have different opinions about tolling the bridge and that he himself had to wait an extra eight minutes to get to the luncheon because of difficulty on that bridge on Wednesday morning.
Koenig said that he had organized a meeting with Governor Steve Beshear, a proponent of tolling the bridge, and Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock to discuss the project but said that so much misinformation is prevalent in discussions of the project that even he, as an informed legislator, left without knowing anything new.
The Erlanger Republican was also upset that the region was told that there is no state funding for the project but the Mountain parkway project was awarded more than $700 million. "Give me that $750 million and maybe we'll come back to you and say, how would you like to pay half a toll or half as much or let's see how we find the rest of the money," Koenig said. "It's difficult to even have a conversation on that."
"I think we have to be prudent as we approach this challenge," Simpson said. "We have to recognize that the bridge is structurally sound. Do we have to act at this point? I think we need to act upon a course of challenging our federal delegation to do their job."
"Do we expect them to bear all the costs? Absolutely not. Part must be borne by the state."
Simpson predicted that a bill related to the governance of the Kenton County Airport Board could be debated, as suggested after an examination by Auditor Adam Edelen who criticized spending on travel and food, as well as hiring and appointment practices. "I am convinced there is going to be legislation and while I don't agree with ninety percent of what was contained in the auditor's report, there are some common sense mechanisms (Edelen) proposed that I hope, candidly, we can come together as a Northern Kentucky caucus and craft."
McDaniel is now working on the heroin bill that died in the last session. It was previously sponsored by Republican Senator Katie Stine of Fort Thomas who is not returning to Frankfort next year.
What the agenda looks like when the General Assembly could have a lot to do with the results on Election Day. The Republicans own the Senate but are making a serious push to take control of the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives.
Story & photo by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News