Too big for our bridges?
The legislature debates tolls for new bridges — again
If the arc of the Kentucky General Assembly’s ongoing narrative over whether to use tolls to fund the construction of two new bridges were a plane, it would’ve been delayed on the tarmac, flown around aimlessly for a few minutes, and crashed into a nice empty patch of concrete below.
To say the enduring stalemate between the House and Senate over bridge funding is a laughable exercise in futility is itself too nasty a joke on this state to cope with, even if you’re one of the growing constituency who opposes the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, one of the largest public projects on the books in America. It would place one new bridge in the East End, one downtown, and expand the ill-conceived Spaghetti Junction interchange to a super-sized 23 lanes at its widest point, all over the next quarter-century.
Most people — advocates and constituents alike — have become bored with the shenanigans of our elected class when it comes to the bridges. Last session, a bill to create a funding mechanism to cover Kentucky’s $2.9 billion portion through the use of tolls died when Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, demanded the authority that would oversee toll money be an existing one, where the bill would’ve created a new one. That was the second time around for the tolls bill. As round three approaches, the cantankerous Williams still doesn’t seem ready to budge, although according to a spokesperson, the governor might ... oh, he just might.
“He’s completely open to further discussions,” Jay Blanton, spokesman for Gov. Steve Beshear, said.
To be fair, state Democrats should get the hose, too: Leaders were just as unwilling to compromise on the origins of the tolling authority, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo quietly let the clock run out on the bill last session. Gov. Beshear hoisted up a nearly identical bill for this summer’s special session, which began Monday, costs taxpayers $60,000 a day, and is quickly becoming an annual festival of low competence.
Naturally, the Beshear bill walked into oncoming traffic the day it was released. House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Jefferson, told reporters Beshear went against consensus in narrowing the scope of the theoretical tolling authority to the bridges project and the Henderson County portion of the I-69 project (also known as the NAFTA Highway, bane of the lefties). Clark is so miffed he may withdraw his support.
When asked how much compromise the governor is up for, Blanton was short on details and long on the word “consensus.”
And so we wait.
It is important to understand that this bill is not simply about tolls. It does not necessarily mean there will be $6 tolls on all bridges touching the city, although they could be more like $3 — a number foisted in a study released this February by Wilbur Smith Associates, the contract firm for the Department of Transportation — if state officials decide to follow through with one of the major “positives” of Beshear’s bill, that it opens up the coin purse for other state projects.
It’s curious to wonder where the portion of toll-based funding might end and state funding might begin. If the state gets greedy, Louisville drivers are hung. “That basically says we don’t want to put the money into Louisville, we’ll let them pay for their own project and then have this largesse around the state,” Tyler Allen, proprietor of 8664.org, told me.
The tolling authority — boasting 11 members, six of whom are citizens appointed by the governor — would oversee all transportation projects that involve Indiana (our northern neighbors are trying to establish a similar authority now, too). Such a narrow scope is typical, according to Peter Samuel, an expert on tolling who runs the website TollRoadsNews.com. Asked for examples, Samuel cited tolling authorities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, both of which require project-specific legislation for new construction.
Tucked at the bottom of the second-to-last page of the bill is a salacious little bit of legalese, a provision that binds the tolling authority to the bridges project precisely as it is now established. This could ward off any further challengers to the project, like 8664, an alternative citizen-driven movement that has picked up significant support over the last few years. It might also be included as a way to limit the authority’s authority — that is, they can’t just go changing things because they can.
Let us not take our eyes off the road here: The real question is whether this region, a place designed mostly for drivers with a population of well over a million people, is ready for pay-to-play. Driving is down markedly in America, a symptom of high gas prices. It’s logical that the attendant costs will only increase over the next three decades.
“It’s a valid concern if they’re given absolutely huge powers, but the projects have got to be financially viable or else they’ll have to get some subsidies from somewhere,” Samuel said. “And if they’re financially viable, there’s usually a strong demand for them, because that’s telling you there’s a lot of people wanting to make those trips and ready to pay the toll.”
Visit leoweekly.com/news to read about comparably sized cities using tolls for roads and bridges.