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Tolls for Brent Spence Project Remain an Option as Bill Advances Over Simpson's Objections

The bill that could possibly lead to tolls being used to fund the estimated $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Project advanced through a House of Representatives Committee in Frankfort late Tuesday morning despite Covington Democrat Arnold Simpson's attempts to block the user fees.

The Appropriations and Revenue Committee heard House Bill 443, also known as the public-private partnership bill, and voted to send it to the full House and voted down Simpson's amendments. Simpson, whose amendments in 2014 to prevent tolling led Gov. Steve Beshear to veto it altogether, wanted local governments to be able to approve a public-private partnership, to require that tolls expire upon repayment of construction debt, that costs not borne by the federal government be paid for in full by Kentucky on its side and Ohio on its side, among other concerns.

The 50-year old Brent Spence Bridge currently carries twice the number of vehicles it was designed for and the current proposed project would place a new span to the west of it while refurbishing the new bridge and would also aim to improve traffic flow through approximately seven miles of highway on both sides of the bridge.

The transportation departments from both states and each state's governor have stated that there is no way to pay for the project without the use of tolls. Recently Beshear joined Ohio Governor John Kasich to call for a re-examination of the project in an effort that would lead to 50-50 cost sharing of a scaled-down project, while leaving tolls on the table.

"I feel this is a sad moment for Kentucky," Simpson said as the votes to approve the bill were cast, reiterating that Northern Kentucky's entire legislative delegation opposed tolls on the bridge project. "I think it leaves a pretty sad legacy."

Rep. Addia Wuchner and Rep. Sal Santoro, both Florence Republicans, are also on the committee with Simpson.

Rep. Leslie Combs (D-Pikeville) insisted that the bill is bigger than the Brent Spence project and said that the General Assembly would still need to pass a joint resolution next year before the bridge project could move forward. "It simply creates P3 legislation and to use that as an option to build that bridge," Combs said. The committee was not voting on the Brent Spence Bridge or tolls, she added.

Earlier in the proceedings, emphasizing a majority of the Northern Kentucky general public's opposition to tolls, Simpson said, "We're all politicians in a sense. I can't believe we would all be blind to the will of the people."

Former State Senator Joe Meyer (D-Covington), now the head of the anti-toll group Northern Kentucky United, testified before the committee and urged a no vote based on precedent set across the country where public-private transportation projects have gone bankrupt. He wanted that the Brent Spence project would be the largest P3 project undertaken by a state government. 

The bill now heads to the floor of the House for full consideration. 

Locally, Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank commented on The River City News Facebook page, "Tar and feathering toll supporters shouldn't be out of the question."

"There is a special circle in hell reserved for tollmeisters who will be forced to listen to my testimony to the House and Senate Transportation Committee from December 2013 followed by an Alleluia Chorus of "We Told You So's" (for) all eternity for the wreckage a P3 will do to Covington, Northern Kentucky, and the Commonwealth,"Frank wrote. "(O)f course the bridge won't get built but just saying."

"Arnold's efforts are much appreciated," said City Commissioner Chuck Eilerman. "He's standing up for the best interests of his constituents at some cost to himself."

-Staff report