By The Cincinnati Enquirer
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Ohio Gov. John Kasich might have made their final joint announcement on the Brent Spence Bridge project Wednesday.
They outlined potentially significant changes to the project that they hope will finally convince the Kentucky Legislature to embrace tolls and move forward with construction on the bridge replacement and highway-corridor overhaul.
Beshear and Kasich called for the states' transportation leaders to reduce the project's $2.6 billion price tag, announced a 50 percent discount on toll rates for daily commuters, and said Ohio will now split the project cost 50/50 with Kentucky.
Will it be enough to get the project going before Beshear leaves office at the end of the year?
Here are five takeaways from the governors' press conference in Covington:
1. It's not guaranteed any money can be saved.
The governors have asked state transportation leaders to re-examine project plans to see if anything can be changed to cut costs. They've been given a March 30 deadline to make the changes, if possible.
It's possible the price tag could be reduced up to $300 million, Beshear said. Engineers could take out proposed extra lanes and reconfigure interchanges, but they aren't certain yet if any money can be saved.
"There's nothing that jumps off the sheet that says this is not something that we should do," said Mike Hancock, Kentucky's top transportation official. "I'll be surprised if there's a huge number that we can trim."
Beshear talked about how Kentucky and Indiana cut the cost of the interstate bridges project in the Louisville region down to $2.3 billion from $4.1 billion. Here however, the region's hilly terrain and nature of the Interstate 71/75 traffic bottleneck may make it difficult to cut the scope of the Brent Spence project, Hancock said.
2. Kasich takes verbal jabs at NKY leaders – again.
Kentucky owns the Brent Spence Bridge, and therefore its state lawmakers have the final say on whether the project gets done.
Kasich, however, has a history of doing things to upset those Kentucky state leaders. Kasich has recruited jobs away from Northern Kentucky and repeatedly criticized its leaders on various issues, including the bridge and CVG airport.
Kasich had refrained from criticizing Northern Kentucky leaders in recent visits to the region, but he was back at it Wednesday.
Here are Kasich's comments:
• "I would say to the business leaders across Kentucky and my friends in Ohio that we work with these legislators who, for whatever reason ... operate with blind and extreme ideology (and) are stopping progress."
• "(Beshear) can't force a group of legislators who want to put their heads in the sand to go forward and do something that needs to be done."
• "I think the vast majority of people who understand the economics, the safety question — they're all for this (project). And you've got a pocket of people up here who are not. Well, God bless them, but they're standing in the way of significant progress."
Kasich made the comments while standing inside the very same RiverCenter office complex that once housed Omnicare – and across the street from the building that once housed Nielsen – both companies that he recruited to Cincinnati after taking office in 2011.
3. Did Beshear encourage motorists to avoid the toll bridge?
"You're fortunate here in Northern Kentucky," Beshear said. "You've got six other spans to cross the Ohio River. Anybody who doesn't want to pay a toll can find other ways of going back and forth across that river."
Motorists trying to avoid paying a toll have been a big concern for both opponents and proponents. Opponents are concerned motorists will either create nightmarish congestion in the streets of Covington or completely avoid driving near the city and hurt its economy by not patronizing restaurants, bars and shops.
Diversion also could cause a shortage in toll revenue needed to repay loans. Declining traffic volume contributed to a private company being unable to repay debt on a major Indiana tollway last year. The company ultimately filed for bankruptcy.
4. Beshear will veto any anti-toll bill this year.
A public-private partnership bill is expected to be introduced during Kentucky's current General Assembly. Beshear made it clear that if any state lawmaker tries to attach an amendment banning the use of tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge, he will veto it for the second straight year.
"We're not going to pass P3 legislation with a prohibition of tolling," Beshear said. "It makes no sense for the future of the state."
State Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, attached an anti-toll amendment to a statewide P3 bill last year, and Beshear vetoed it – potentially costing bridge and highway projects across the state from being able to use private financing to move construction forward. Even if a P3 bill is passed, state lawmakers still would have to approve a finance plan for the Brent Spence Bridge.
5. The governors prompted a flurry of response from toll opponents and supporters.
• About 15 members of the anti-toll group Northern Kentucky United protested outside the RiverCenter.
"We're glad to hear (the governors) have realized this project needs to be revisited, but what they have offered is only a small step in the right direction," the group said in a statement. "Tolls are not the answer. A $1 toll on the bridge is pure fantasy at this point. They have no finance plan and cannot possibly know what the toll will be."
• The Virginia-based Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates said: "The disappointing fact is that two governors of different political parties support a tax increase on drivers. The words 'taxes' and 'tolls' have the same effect on drivers: They take hard-earned money out of their pockets."
• Top business leaders pushing for the project crowded into the room to hear the governors. Tom Williams, co-owner of the Reds and co-chair of the Build Our New Bridge Now coalition, praised the governors for making a bipartisan commitment and working to get the project done.
• Washington, D.C.-based lobby group International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association said in a statement: "IBTTA asks Congress to build on Ohio's and Kentucky's progress ... and provide states with greater flexibility to meet their transportation funding needs – including the right to toll existing interstate highways for the purpose of reconstruction."