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In NKY Debate, Bevin Says "No Way Around" Tolls for Brent Spence

In their fifth and final debate of the 2019 gubernatorial election cycle, Republican incumbent Matt Bevin and his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Andy Beshear addressed the long-proposed Brent Spence Bridge corridor project, a more than $2 billion plan to add a companion bridge to the more than 50-year old span that connects Covington to Cincinnati via Interstates 71 and 75.

The project also includes proposed improvements to the highways on both sides of the Ohio River.

At Tuesday night's debate, held at Northern Kentucky University and produced by WLWT with help from NKU, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Duke Energy, and St. Elizabeth Healthcare, moderator Sheree Paolello, a WLWT news anchor and NKU alumna, posed a question related to the bridge and its prospects for funding.

Bevin recited multiple times that he would not "kick the can down the road" in reference to the bridge project, to which Beshear quipped that the governor had in fact kicked said can throughout his first term as "not one shovel has been put in the ground."

The project has stalled amid debate over how to pay for it.

Proposals include at least some inclusion of tolling to pay for the bridge, an issue so opposed by many in Northern Kentucky that the General Assembly passed a bill in 2016 that would allow private money to pay for public projects (public-private partnerships or P3) but specifically banning the use of tolls to pay for any bridge across the Ohio River connecting Kentucky to Ohio, without consent of the state legislature.

Bevin signed that bill into law.

But on Tuesday night, Bevin said "there's no way around" the use of tolls to fund the mega-project.

Arguing that the two current sources of funding available - the federal highway trust and the revenue from gas taxes - would not be enough to finance the project, Bevin said, "There is no way around it. It is going to have require some combination, suggesting that variable tolling could be explored. "But there's no way around having some type of tolling on a bridge this size," Bevin said.

"Let's be honest. We have to pay for it. The users of this bridge and these roads have to pay for it. There's no way around it."

Beshear was less direct in his response about to pay for the bridge.

"Building consensus takes a governor that listens and doesn't lecture, that can sit down and initiate because he hasn't angered the other side so severely because of his rhetoric," Beshear said.

"So is that tolling or no tolling?," Bevin asked Beshear.

"I believe the people of Northern Kentucky and not this governor should get to determine the manner in which this bridge is funded," Beshear responded. Bevin then argued that the people should have someone who gives them a straight answer.

Both Bevin and Beshear cited their working relationship with Republican Ohio Governor Mike Dewine, who previously served that state as attorney general before being elevated to the top executive post following the 2018 election.

The Brent Spence project previously had the support of both states' governors when Democrat Steve Beshear of Kentucky and Republican John Kasich of Ohio made multiple appearances together to propose what they saw as solutions. Nearly five years ago, Steve Beshear, Andy Beshear's father who served as governor from 2007 to 2015, joined Kasich at a news conference in Covington where they presented a plan that they argued would lower the cost of the project through design, construction, and financing, while splitting the costs 50-50 between Kentucky and Ohio, and providing a 50-percent discount in toll rates for frequent commuters.

Both governors left office with no progress on the project, though Ohio lawmakers were more receptive and supportive of various proposals.

Following the debate, Andy Beshear met with reporters, including from The River City News, and was asked to clarify his position on the bridge. He was asked about whether the project would be an urgent need in his administration after the mayor of Ft. Mitchell and Kenton County judge/executive declared a state of emergency on a portion of the corridor following four crashes on Saturday involving semi-trucks, including one that wipes out dozens of feet of protective barrier wall that separates the north and southbound lanes.

"I believe we absolutely have to move forward on the Brent Spence Bridge project and we have seen four years where Matt Bevin hasn't had one shovel in the ground," Beshear said. "It takes buy-in from both Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, engaging the Northern Kentucky community to build the type of consensus on how we move forward because those folks traveling over the bridge ought to have a say in the decision.

"We're going to get this project started in my first term," he said.

Asked again whether that meant tolls were on or off the table, Beshear said, "I believe there has to be a consensus among Northern Kentucky citizens because those that are one paycheck away from falling into poverty, they're already struggling to put gas in their cars. They have to be protected."

Bevin left NKU without talking to reporters after the debate.

Other issues explored in the debate were typical of the previous encounters between the candidates with pension reform, gun control, and abortion reviving repeats of previous performances from the two.

Another issue relevant to Northern Kentucky is the proposed expansion of gambling, which Beshear supports, arguing that it would create up to $550 million in annual revenue for the state, money that could be used to assist Kentucky's ailing pension system. Bevin opposes gambling and reiterated his position that someone dies every day in Las Vegas by suicide related to gambling.

"Go to Google, put casino, hotel, suicides," Bevin said. "There is a correlation between suicide and gambling."

A variation of that comment was addressed by Bevin during a debate at KET in Lexington on Saturday when Beshear cited a previous statement by the governor that suggested someone commits suicide every night at a casino. Bevin denied saying that and urged Beshear to "produce that tape". Beshear did in a follow-up campaign video.

"This is someone who cannot admit when they've made something up and they've been caught," Beshear said.

"We will legalize expanded gaming, including sports betting," Beshear said. "If Matt Bevin is reelected, you will never see that revenue."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: A scene from the debate at NKU as seen from the media room (RCN)