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A New Highway & Bridge in Ft. Thomas? No Way, Say Pendery, Davis, Talk Radio Host

A proposal tossed out this week by Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer & State Senator Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill) related to constructing a bridge over the Ohio River from Fort Thomas to Newtown, Ohio has not been well received by local leaders, has been ridiculed on talk radio, has concerned Campbell County Judge-Executive Steve Pendery, and has not been pitched to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet yet.

Comer is running for governor in 2015 with McDaniel as his running mate. They face Louisville businessman Hal Heiner and former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scot in a 3-way Republican primary slated for May. McDaniel previously called for a "reset" in the Brent Spence conversation during a December forum in Covington.

When asked of the feasibility of such a project proposed by the gubernatorial ticket, Chief District Engineer of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet - District 6, Rob Hans carefully pointed to the study done in 2003 when the area was assessed and improvements for the Brent Spence Corridor were recommended based off of that study's findings.

“Of course without knowing the specifics of what Senator McDaniel is commenting on, it's hard for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to provide much comment from a feasibility standpoint. We haven't looked at any alignments in that area and terrain, topography is dramatic in the Campbell County area,” Mr. Hans said. “I think there was a statement made about a bridge between I-275 and I-471, so the physical location development in the area would all have to be looked at.”

McDaniel specifically said, in an interview with 700 WLW's Bill Cunningham, that a bridge could possibly be constructed between I-471 and I-275. He suggested that the I-75 corridor, where the Brent Spence Bridge connects Covington to Cincinnati, has been almost entirely developed and that a new stretch of interstate and bridge to the east could spur more development opportunities. "Any time you see a major artery go through, you see the development on that artery," McDaniel said. He emphasized that the decision about a new bridge will affect the next three generations and that the area should proceed with caution.

Campbell County Judge/Executive Steve Pendery more openly doubted the feasibility of the Comer-McDaniel suggestion and said no one lately has contacted him about building a bridge in Campbell County.

“I have had the occasion to review the whole matter because I've been asked by people who are worried that there might be an interstate proposed to run through Campbell County and I was also President of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments for a couple of years so, I had access to it,” he said.

“The route, first of all, doesn't solve the problem of the Brent Spence Bridge Project as currently conceived is designed to solve. It doesn't relieve enough traffic out of that corridor to solve the problem,” Judge Pendery said.

As impractical as the location may or may not be for a new span, Hans did recognize that any project is, in theory, possible with enough money backing it.

“Anything is feasible if you have enough funding, I guess, but the practicality of the bridge he states, I don't know the corridor road, facility type, or what the specifics were that he was referring to. So practicality wise, it's hard for the Cabinet to give a specific response without knowing more details or what he's looking for and/or to gain from an alignment such as that.”

Funding is another reason why Judge Pendery sees the plan as flawed.

“You have to traverse over twenty miles of real estate in Northern Kentucky,” he said about the route proposed by Sen. McDaniel. “You have to go over or under a railroad track and two rivers and you add all of that up, it's more expensive than the Brent Spence Bridge replacement.”

Hans said that between 2003-05, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet performed what they called the Engineering Feasibility Study, which looked at different options for reconstructing the I-75 Corridor. The study looked at other locations and the traffic demands and movement of the entire region.

“The determination out of that study was that the I-75/71 corridor is where traffic is located, where the demands are the greatest, where the safety concerns are at the highest levels,” Hans said.

He listed the narrow lanes with no emergency shoulders, the geometric deficiencies with all of the ramp connections and the regional vitality aspects as factors in the determination that the improvements to the I-75/71 corridor was what needed to move forward.

“That study did look at alternative routes to the West, looked at previous studies that had been performed back in late 1980's for alternative routes to the East. Again, the determination was made to move forward with the improvements to the I-75/71 corridor,” he said.

In 2005, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet started the Preliminary Engineering Environmental Phase of the Brent Spence Corridor project and reconstruction of the corridor. Mr. Hans said that that effort has taken several years through much vetting of different options and different alternatives.

“I know that Sen. McDaniel mentioned something about a tunnel. That was fully vetted through the preliminary engineering phase and was discounted based on cost and constructability challenges, so that was even looked at,” Hans said. McDaniel also discounted the feasibility of a tunnel during his Cunningham interview.

The Brent Spence Corridor alternative was the recommended option that came out of those studies which both the Ohio Board of Transportation and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet went through detailed engineering analysis in order to determine.

“Alternative I was the selected alternative, now we're looking at how to come up with the necessary funds to build that recommended preferred alternative,” said Hans.

As to how the necessary parties can come up with that funding comes down to the decision of the Kentucky Legislature.

“We have evaluated the possibilities of public/private partnership, alternative financing mechanisms, and tolling for a repayment of the borrowing of the funds necessary for the project. We have been evaluating different toll scenarios, but the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet does not have the authority to pursue those funding mechanisms at this time,” Hans said. “The Kentucky Legislature would have to pass legislation to allow that to occur, so at this time we are still performing the studies of looking at those alternative financing mechanisms, but we do not have the authority at this time to move forward with those.”

Based on the recommendations of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Ohio Board of Transportation, it seems that deviating from the study's findings that point to the Brent Spence Corridor project as the most logical effort to assist transportation for the entire region may not be in Northern Kentucky's best interest.

Former Congressman Geoff Davis also discounted the Comer-McDaniel plan. In an appearance on 700 WLW's Scott Sloan Show, Davis quipped, "Imagine a six-lane highway that had to span the Licking River and then come up through Campbell County through essentially Cold Spring, Highland Heights, and Fort Thomas, and then small questions like, what do you do with NKU? And what do you do with the Fort Thomas community that wasn't asked if they want to have a six-lane highway cut through their community?"

Sloan was even harsher in his assessment of the bridge proposal. "How in the hell in anyone's lifetime are you going to acquire that much land over twelve straight miles of inhabited, populated, and spoken-for land in a densely populated area like Northern Kentucky and around Newtown and Turpin Hills in Cincinnati? Are you out of your mind?," he asked. "But that's the proposal."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to a span crossing the Licking River from Ft. Thomas to Newtown. It would cross the Ohio River. RCN regrets the oversight.

Written by Bryan Burke and Michael Monks for The River City News