FOX19 Investigates: Kentucky bridge projects

NORTHERN KENTUCKY (FOX19) - A major bridge project is underway in Louisville, while the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor remains in the planning stages.

FOX19 investigated to find out why some new bridges are moving forward, while the Northern Kentucky project remains unconstructed.

"Anytime there is a mega project involved, the situations are different. The mechanics of how you finance and fund those are different. How people react to the various methods for paying for it are different," Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock explained.

He says the first major difference is the scope of the two projects.

The Ohio River Bridges Project includes two new bridges plus a complete rehab of the Kennedy Memorial Bridge. Kennedy will become a one-way bridge for I-65 southbound traffic. One of the new bridges will carry northbound I-65 traffic between downtown Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana. The other bridge, eight miles upriver, runs between Prospect, Kentucky and Utica, Indiana.

The Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project, however, includes just one replacement bridge and the renovation of the Brent Spence.

The second distinction is that the Ohio River Bridges (ORB) Project has evolved over the last 40 years. While the Brent Spence was opened the same year as Louisville's Kennedy Memorial Bridge, Hancock says replacement discussions began later; though there is no debate now that it is needed.

"It is a priority for the transportation network in Kentucky, there's no double about that," Hancock said. "In fact, it's a top priority. The difficulty has always been, how do we fund it?"

The third and largest distinction is financing.

"The biggest issue we have is the cost of the [Brent Spence] project," Hancock said.

For ORB, Indiana and Kentucky submitted the Initial Financial Plan to the Federal Highway Administration in 2007.

In 2009 the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation to enable the state to work with specifically with Indiana on alternative financing for "mega" projects.

While Louisville's bridges were initially estimated to cost $4.1 billion, the governors of Kentucky and Indiana scaled the project back to $2.6 billion, which is roughly the same as the Brent Spence.

Hancock does not believe similar legislation will not be necessary for Kentucky's collaboration with Ohio.

With federal earmarks no longer an option, the Ohio River Bridges project is being paid for from a mix of state bonds, federal dollars and toll revenues.

"First and foremost, we've had broad-based community support. Even with tolling recognized as being a concern, there the pubic by and large has understood that's the way the project would get done," Hancock said of the Louisville project.

According to the Brent Spence Bridge project website: "Adequate funds do not exist to replace and refurbish the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor using traditional revenues. Because of this, tolls will be used and alternative delivery methods will be considered if this project is to be completed within the next 40 years."

"It would just put us at a horrific competitive disadvantage to have tolling on that bridge," Kentucky Senator Chris McDaniel said of the new Brent Spence project.

Senator McDaniel argues, unlike in Louisville, the majority of bridge traffic is headed out of the state in Northern Kentucky making tolls a tougher sell.

"A toll would have a disproportionately negative impact on Northern Kentucky's residents, Northern Kentucky's construction, on Northern Kentucky's commercial operations versus in Ohio. That's why the number one reason this is different from the Ohio River Bridges project," He argued. "Those of us who are elected to represent the interests of Northern Kentucky just find that to be completely unpalatable."

In 2012 Kentucky's General Assembly included language in the transportation budget that stated it would not give any more money for the Brent Spence until there was a financial plan for the project.

Currently KYTC is waiting on results of a Value for Money study which looks at different ways to pay for the project and those results should be ready in the next four to six weeks.

From there the KYTC will put together a Brent Spence financing plan which will be included in the state's six year highway plan. That plan will be presented to the General Assembly when it convenes in 2014.

Secretary Hancock says by late April or May the fate of the project's Kentucky funding should be made clear.

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