Northern Kentucky business leaders on Wednesday asked Kentucky legislators to allow private funds to help pay for the Brent Spence Bridge project.
Private funds could hasten the project by five years or more and save the state more than $500 million, said Steve Stevens, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
The $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge project was one of several in Northern Kentucky leaders presented before state senators and representatives on the Interim Joint Committee on Appropriations and Revenue Wednesday at a meeting held at the Newport Aquarium.
Leaders with the Chamber and the business coalition called Build Our New Bridge Now urged Kentucky lawmakers to pass legislation like in Ohio to allow Kentucky to use public-private partnerships to fund the project.
Private financing for the bridge could include tolls–something not popular with many Northern Kentucky–but could also take the form of a variety of other options, said Thomas Gabelman, legal counsel for Build Our New Bridge Now. This includes allowing companies to reap profits off motor vehicle registration fees or increases in the fuel taxes, Gabelman said.
“Again, you have to look at allocation of dollars and how realistic is it that the federal government is going to come in here today and write a check for $2.7 billion,” Gabelman said. “I think would be waiting until 2040 or 2050, if then, for this bridge to be built.”
Since the economic downturn in 2009, 15 states have passed public-private partnership legislation, Gabelman said. Under these partnerships, private companies who build and maintain the bridges have an interest in completing the project quickly and to a high level so it will last, he said. Ohio passed the legislation in a six-month period, he said.
“Gov. Kasich pushed that, because he saw that Ohio needed to compete on a national stage in order to deliver projects quicker,” Gabelman said.
Private funds could expedite the completion of the Brent Spence Bridge project from 2023 to 2018, Stevens said.
“The bottom line is this, about $500 million in savings for the taxpayers because of increasing costs over time as you wait to do this project, also $18.9 billion in savings for those who use this bridge,” Stevens said. “That is in efficiency due to reduction of fuel costs in commute times and waiting on the bridge. Every month we wait to do this, the project costs increase about $8 million.”
Legislators seemed receptive to allowing public-private partnerships. Tolls, however, have to be considered, said Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.
“It inflames a lot of people who don’t like to hear that word, but it does necessarily have to be part of the discussion,” Stumbo said. “I like the idea they are looking at all their funding sources and all the options, and that is just another option out there.”
Port of Cincinnati might get bigger
The A and R committee also heard from other leaders about other projects and developments in Northern Kentucky.
The increased river traffic anticipated by the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2014 has the port authorities of Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati considering an expansion of the boundaries for what the federal government designates as the Port of Cincinnati, officials told the lawmakers Wednesday.
The current Port of Cincinnati designated by the Army Corps of Engineers extends 26 miles along the Ohio River east from Indiana border, said Laura Brunner, president of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority. Other ports, like the ones in Pittsburgh and Huntington, extend 200 miles, she said.
The Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati port authorities as well as the Army Corps of Engineers have started investigating a designation of the Port of Cincinnati extending 200 miles from Madison, Ind. to Portsmouth, Ohio, said Roger Peterman, chairman of the Northern Kentucky Port Authority.
“The important first step in this regard is to encourage reinvestment and take advantage of the potential development from the Panama Canal widening,” Peterman said. “No one really knows what’s going to happen with that, but we feel this region can position itself for building a capacity to deal with what could be a transformational development in the movement of goods.”
A larger port would help the region market to businesses that deal in commodities shipped along the river as well as qualify for more federal funds, he said. The re-designation would make Cincinnati the ninth largest port in the country, up from 44th, based on activity, Brunner said.
Angel investing and convention center among other issues
Other issues Northern Kentuckians lobbied legislators on Wednesday included tax credits for angel investors and funding for the expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.
The availability of money for development will depend on the economy, Stumbo said.
“Our economy is getting a little bit better, but I don’t want to hold out false hope,” Stumbo said. “We’re not quite back to where you can look at a broad spectrum of development dollars being available.”
Scott Wartman reported for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Enquirer.