COVINGTON, Kentucky — Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear warned Monday that it will cost taxpayers $7 million every month lawmakers do not take action to replace the Brent Spence Bridge that connects northern Kentucky with Cincinnati.
The 50-year old bridge has no emergency shoulder and now carries twice the amount of traffic it was built to handle. And the American Transportation Institute said the bridge is the fourth most congested area for trucks in the country.
But the $2.6 billion project has languished for years because northern Kentucky state lawmakers have adamantly opposed using tolls to pay for the bridge. They argue more people commute to Cincinnati from Kentucky than vice versa, so Kentucky drivers would pay more for the cost of the bridge.
Beshear told the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce on Monday that "we're going to build this (bridge) sometime," and he said waiting five years will add another $400 million to the price tag, using a 3 percent inflation figure from the Federal Highway Administration.
"Guess where that is going to come from? You know the answer. That's going to come from you in some form or fashion either in taxes or in tolls or both," Beshear said. "We have to act now to control that cost and keep that cost as low as possible."
But opponents of tolls say the majority of the project's cost comes not from replacing the 1,800-foot bridge but the proposed improvements to the 7.8 miles of highway leading up to the bridge on both sides of the river.
"The advocates for this have used ... 'replace the bridge' as shorthand, really, for a 7.8-mile project that spends billions of dollars in other places," said Joe Meyer, spokesman for Northern Kentucky United, a group that opposes tolls. "Kentuckians (who commute to Ohio for work) will pay two-thirds the cost of those tolls. You're looking at a $1,000 a year tax just to keep your job."
Beshear said he will meet with Ohio Gov. John Kasich in early January to "come up with a path forward" for the bridge. Kasich, a Republican, signed legislation in June that would allow tolls to replace the double decker bridge that carries traffic from I-71 and I-75. But a similar effort in the Kentucky state legislature failed despite Beshear's support.
The bridge has become a symbol of the country's aging infrastructure, and politicians from both parties have used it to blame the other side for the gridlock that has so far prevented the bridge from being replaced. Democratic President Barack Obama used the bridge as a backdrop for a 2011 speech calling on Republican leaders to pass his $447 billion jobs bill. And the bridge was featured prominently in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race.
But any plan to replace the bridge will almost certainly use a portion of state funding, which means it will have to be approved by a Kentucky state legislature that has so far been unwilling to use tolls to pay for the project. In Louisville, just 90 miles down the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Kentucky and Indiana officials used tolls to pay for two new bridges and repairs to a third in a deal that was shepherded by Beshear and Indiana's former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
"Both Kentucky and Indiana recognized that we couldn't keep waiting on dysfunctional Washington to get its act together," Beshear said. "We have to make our own path forward."
But a spokesman for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell said Congress needs to pass a significant transportation infrastructure bill "particularly in light of Frankfort's inaction."
"The challenge of how to pay for the project hasn't changed, and the senator will continue working on possible solutions in the next Congress," said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.
Earlier this month, McConnell had a rare one-on-one meeting with Obama in advance of McConnell leading the new Republican majority in the Senate. Obama said after that meeting that both sides could agree to an infrastructure spending bill as part of broader tax reform legislation. But he said any such deal would take at least six months to pass.