In the most blunt call-to-action yet, community leaders said Tuesday that the 16-member Northern Kentucky state legislative delegation needs to show more leadership and political courage in Frankfort when it comes to replacing the Brent Spence Bridge.
“This needs to get done. It’s time for leadership. It’s time for strong leadership,” Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore said at the annual State of Northern Kentucky Address.
“I’m mainly calling out our Northern Kentucky caucus, our state (House) and Senate leaders here in the region: you need to step forward,” he said. “This is a state project, with federal funding assistance. And I’m just not seeing anyone take the bull by the horns and leading this project, and they need to.”
The Greater Cincinnati business community and local political leaders have led the charge so far, but the project has reached the point where legislative action is needed on the state level.
“We need the leadership coming from our legislators here in Northern Kentucky,” said Kenton County Judge-executive Steve Arlinghaus. “If we’re going to get something accomplished, that’s where it’s going to begin.”
Moore said state lawmakers need to be stronger advocates for the project among their peers in Frankfort, and be more hands-on in vetting all financing options for the project. They include tolls, an option many have dismissed out-of-hand “because it’s politically very controversial,” he said.
“But I also think it’s going to be politically controversial if they can’t get the job done and nothing happens,” Moore said.
Caucus chairman Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, a leading opponent of tolls, could not immediately be reached for comment.
A plan is in place to replace the bridge, but funding is the main obstacle: The project is estimated to cost $2.5 billion, and backers of the project widely believe that Congress will not allocate federal funding until Ohio and Kentucky come up with a plan to pay for the project and the local funding required. Because Kentucky owns the bridge, Frankfort needs to take action first – starting with the 16 men and women who make up the Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus.
“There’s some controversial decisions to be made, especially around the word ‘tolls,’ ” Moore said. “And I just don’t see them at the table even collecting the information to be able to make that tough decision.”
Replacing the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstate 75 over the Ohio River, is one of the most critical issues facing Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati. The 49-year-old span is a major commercial artery for both the region and the nation: it carries an estimated 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product every year. But it is also severely overcrowded, carrying more than double the vehicles it was designed to carry each day, and it has been labeled functionally obsolete by federal standards.
“It should be our number one focus,” said Grant County Judge-executive Darrell Link. “That interstate is our lifeline, and that bridge is our heart, and we need to build it.”
The State of Northern Kentucky Address, delivered by the top elected officials in Boone, Campbell, Kenton and Grant counties, also focused upon the other most critical issue facing the region: the vitality of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Arlinghaus said CVG is on the right path under the leadership of CEO Candace McGraw, who has inspired confidence among the Greater Cincinnati business community and has aggressively courted new passenger air service during the past year.
“I’m very confident in where things are today, and I think the public confidence has risen quite a bit as well,” said Arlinghaus, who serves on and makes appointments to the Kenton County Airport Board.
He said growing passenger air service at CVG is a matter of when, not if.
“It’s all about the value of the flights: if (carriers) can put a flight in here and they can make money on it, that’s what’s going to make it happen. And we’re working hard to demonstrate to those other airlines out there that we have the capacity here at CVG to improve their opportunities in being here and being successful,” he said.
Tuesday’s event also focused upon the need for a statewide tax credit for angel investors. The launch in January of UpTech, a new business accelerator at Northern Kentucky University, adds a sense of urgency: the region risks losing the innovative start-ups it has cultivated to neighboring Ohio.
Angel investors invest tens of thousands of dollars in start-up companies, usually in exchange for a stake in the company or some other type of involvement. It’s a gamble, since roughly half of all start-ups fail, but the income tax credits offered by Ohio and more than 20 other states help offset the risk. A more aggressive tax credit was proposed last year in Kentucky, but the bill failed to pass the legislature.
“The stark reality is that while we have a wonderful asset in NKU to attract businesses to the area in the first place, if we don’t look after them while they’re here, they’re going to be gone to Ohio,” said Campbell County Judge-executive Steve Pendery. “Rather than lose the businesses that we’ve just attracted to the area after we’ve seen them grow to something substantial, we need a tool to keep them here.”
Amanda Van Benschoten reported for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Enquirer.