A major obstacle has been overcome allowing the Brent Spence Bridge project to move forward and likely be procured as a public-private partnership (PPP; P3), following an agreement recently announced by the governors of Kentucky and Ohio.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Ohio Governor John Kasich have asked their respective transportation agencies to develop a cost-saving solution by March 30 and to come up with a viable financial plan by the end of 2015. According to a joint statement, “the plan is expected to include a P3 to build, maintain and finance the project.”
The bi-state agreement includes a decision to split costs and toll revenues evenly between Kentucky and Ohio, an issue that had been one of the major obstacles to the project’s progress, since it was expected that Kentucky motorists would be shouldering the majority of the cost as they would be the ones travelling into downtown Cincinnati, a large metropolitan city and Ohio’s third largest.
The issue of tolling was also the main reason Governor Beshear blocked P3 enabling legislation last June, by vetoing a bill that would have allowed the public sector to partner with the private sector in delivering transportation projects but specifically banned the use of tolls to fund the construction of a replacement bridge between Ohio and Kentucky.
Last June, Ohio passed House Bill 533, allowing tolling “on a bridge or system of bridges […] over the Ohio River to another state” and amending its existing P3 legislation.
Other key items of the agreement include lowering the project’s price tag – currently estimated to cost $2.6 billion – “through innovative solutions in design, construction and financing”, according to the statement, as well as a 50 percent discount on tolls for frequent commuters.
“We simply cannot afford more delay, distraction and gridlock – on the interstate or in the halls of government,” Beshear said. “The Brent Spence Bridge corridor must be expanded to meet the safety and mobility needs of a growing, prosperous region. Jobs and lives depend on it.”
The bridge, which connects Covington in northern Kentucky with Cincinnati, opened in 1963. The bridge was renovated in 1986 and widened from two to four lanes. However, emergency lanes were eliminated in the process. Serving traffic from two interstates, I-71 and I-75, it is one of the busiest truck routes in the US.
In 1998, it was listed as “functionally obsolete” by the National Bridge Inventory due in large part to limited visibility and safety concerns, according to the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor website.
Aside from safety concerns, delays in moving forward with the project has also raised concerns in terms of rising costs – another reason why Beshear and Kasich, a Democrat and Republican respectively, have been working behind the scenes for months and “accelerated efforts in recent weeks.” Inflation is driving up the project’s cost by $7 million every month, according to the statement.
Kentucky has been through this before – when collaborating with the state of Indiana on the Ohio River Bridges project – but was not opposed to that project since most of the traffic would be flowing from Southern Indiana into Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city. Construction started in 2013 after a 10-year stalemate.
Governors Beshear and Kasich cite the project as an example of the cost savings Beshear and then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels were able to achieve through cost reductions and innovative solutions, bringing down the original price of $4.1 billion to $2.3 billion. That project, which each state is procuring separately – Indiana as a P3 and Kentucky as a design-build – is slated to open by the end of 2016.