Brent Spence Bridge: How this week may have changed the future of Greater Cincinnati's biggest project
This isn't an April Fools' Day joke.
State and federal officials' plans aligned this week to bring the Greater Cincinnati region closer - maybe - to funding its biggest single public works project: a new bridge over the Ohio River.
Yes, we're talking about the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project that would expand capacity with a companion bridge and other upgrades.
First, Kentucky lawmakers used part of their last night of the 2021 Kentucky General Assembly session Tuesday appropriating $2.4 billion of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to be used on infrastructure projects, direct aid, and other limited uses.
Then, Kentuckians woke up Wednesday to President Biden's proposal for a $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure package. That includes a plan to pay for the ten most "economically significant bridges" in the county in need of reconstruction.
"If there is any project eligible, this would be it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters during a press conference in Northern Kentucky Wednesday. "Hopefully somewhere in the bowels of this multi-trillion bill, there’s a solution."
The two pots of money could help fund the Brent Spence Bridge, possibly without tolls.
Before the appropriation and Biden's announcement, it seemed the region would have to wait longer to fund the project.
The funding obstacles
For decades, lawmakers have struggled to fund the local match of the project.
"We have to have modern infrastructure to compete," in the global economy, said Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments CEO Mark Policinski in an interview with The Enquirer Wednesday.
Northern Kentuckians are vehemently against tolls. And a gas tax increase hasn't been popular among state lawmakers.
If the region did use tolls, its lawmakers would first have to repeal a law former Gov. Matt Bevin signed in 2016. Backed by the Northern Kentucky delegation, the bill blocked the use of tolls to pay for a new bridge.
No lawmaker introduced a bill this year to ditch that prohibition.
"We’ve said all along that a solution to the Brent Spence Bridge corridor needs to involve everyone in the design and ultimate funding solution, and if tolls are ultimately necessary as part of the financing plan, that should be part of the proposed solution," Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Cooper said Wednesday.
Other funding suggestions have come up, like increasing the gas tax statewide.
In February, Republican Rep. Sal Santoro of Florence submitted a bill to do that. The bill didn't explicitly state that the gas tax revenue would be for the bridge, but advocates for the bridge project have suggested using gas tax funds instead of tolls.
Santoro did not respond to The Enquirer's multiple emails asking for comment about the bill.
Right now, Kentucky's gas tax is 26 cents per gallon. Santoro's bill would have set a base rate of about 34 cents per gallon. By comparison, Ohio's is about 38 cents.
If passed, it would have added $366,690,000 to Kentucky's Road Fund for the 2022 fiscal year, according to public records.
Santoro's bill didn't leave the House committee on appropriations and revenue.
The effort failed in the final hours of the 2021 session, after legislative leaders discussed the possibility of attaching the language to another bill, according to the Courier Journal.
Just when it looked like Kentucky lawmakers would have to try again next year, part of Biden's proposed infrastructure package focused on America's bridges.
Past federal attempts failed. Will these funds be different?
Northern Kentuckians have seen federal officials give the Brent Spence Bridge attention before.
In 2011, former President Barack Obama stood at the base of the bridge and talked about legislation, similar to Biden's, that would create funding for the bridge. That bill died in the Senate. Then in 2016, former President Donald Trump promised to help the bridge while he spoke at a campaign rally in Wilmington, Ohio. That didn't happen.
"The potential difference here is the sheer size of the infrastructure package," Policinski said. He added that now, people seem to understand U.S. infrastructure is a "catastrophe" and there's more of an appetite in Washington, D.C., to spend a lot of money.
The plan would use $621 billion to rebuild infrastructure, which includes funds for "the ten most economically significant bridges in the country in need of reconstruction," according to a White House fact sheet, which did not include a list of bridges.
Biden wants to raise taxes on corporations to pay for the eight-year $2 trillion spending package, according to an administration official. He will propose increasing the corporate tax rate to 28% – resetting to the level before passage of President Donald Trump's tax cuts in 2017 – and overhauling how the U.S. taxes multinational corporations by increasing the minimum tax on U.S. corporations to 21%.
Since there's more money, there's a better chance there are funds available for projects like the Brent Spence Bridge, Policinski said.
"The others were DOA," dead on arrival, Policinski said.
For example, Obama's plan centered around the American Jobs Act. It would have pumped $50 billion toward infrastructure projects in the U.S.
Policinski said there's hope the money from Biden's plan would decrease the amount needed for the local match.
"Hopefully Washington will get it right and will put the money at the local level and not the state level," he said, and added it should have as few federal restrictions as possible.
Locally, people focused on public policy are still thinking about the local match.
"We have been told repeatedly that any federal solution will still require a local match and a plan that is ready to go," Cooper, from the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce said. "Our ask is that our local, state and federal officials are aligned in championing this project."
Enquirer reporter Scott Wartman and USA TODAY contributed.
Julia is the Northern Kentucky government reporter through the Report For America program. The Enquirer needs local donors to help fund her grant-funded position. If you want to support Julia's work, you can donate to her Report For America position at this website or email her editor Carl Weiser at email@example.com to find out how you can help fund her work.
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