More Wasted Hours—and Years—Waiting for a Brent Spence Bridge Fix  

As another year slips away, our region is no closer to resolving a conundrum that seems to have befuddled us since Mark Twain threatened to add an extra 10 years to his life by moving to Cincinnati. And no, I’m not talking about the “Trolley.” It’s that “functionally obsolete” Brent Spence Bridge that has our collective knickers in a multi-state twist.

The facts are not in dispute: the Bridge opened back in 1963, as part of Dwight Eisenhower’s RINO vision of a grand interstate highway system. Originally designed for a capacity of 80,000 vehicles a day, it now “accommodates” more than 170,000, despite the subsequent construction of the I-471 bridge, just up river, and the two I-275 bridge bookends. Extra lanes crammed in to allow more traffic have made the bridge more dangerous. The resulting traffic snarls north and south of the river have become legendary, wasting an estimated 3.6 million of our hours per year. (Why do so many of those wasted hours always coincide with the endless prattle of a public radio fundraising drive?)

It will cost about $2.8 billion to build a new one. Finding that cash is where the mighty minds of our political leaders have hit their own intractable traffic snarl.

In the fall of 2011, President Barack Obama stood in the shadow of our crumbling span and called on Congress to create a national infrastructure fund to replace it and other dying bridges. His plan would have created millions of jobs at a time of record-high unemployment.

I could see Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul laughing off that idea in the roped-off VIP section. Since then, Kentucky’s junior senator, his “colleague” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and southwest Ohio’s own House Speaker John Boehner have done their best to sequester federal funds for infrastructure improvement, when not shutting down the evil federal government altogether. They side with “austerity” at the expense of investing in new bridges and highways.

That leaves the states of Ohio and Kentucky to solve this problem. In the absence of overflowing state coffers, the governors of Ohio and Kentucky—one a Republican and one a Democrat—have acknowledged the obvious: the Bridge will not get built without tolls requiring all of the truckers, commuters and Canadians headed to the beach to chip in. A private operator could help build the bridge, expecting a toll-based revenue stream to return its investment and make a profit. Tolls are projected in the $1 or $2 per trip range, with scanner-type technology replacing old school tollbooths.

If you spend time driving through Florida, New York, New England or even ultra-Red states like Oklahoma and Kansas, you know that most Americans have gotten used to the idea of “pay to drive” on their highways. With legislators in D.C. and our state capitols allergic to tax increases, and our roads and bridges crumbling and overburdened, tolls have been the way many states have accommodated more cars and sprawl since the golden age of the Gipper in the 1980s.

But tolls are anathema to our friends from Northern Kentucky, particularly among the Tea Party sect. Northern Kentucky legislators seem to have formed a suicide pact against Bridge tolls, apparently convinced that only Kentuckians voluntarily cross the river to the opposite shore and that Ohioans will go cold turkey on CVG and Kentucky liquor prices once tolls kick in.

In September, a Northern Kentucky Tea Party group proclaimed that it stood for “limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets” and that “tolls do not work with any of those three principles.”

How does the Tea Party want to pay for the bridge? Increase the Kentucky sales tax by 1 percent to subsidize their trips to Bengals or Reds games.

Huh? Tea Partiers who believe in “free markets” think everyone in the state should cough up an extra 1 percent at the grocery or local restaurant to make Northern Kentuckians’ trips across the river free? These robust defenders of “free markets” object to the notion of private financing, paid back with tolls? Instead they’d prefer to make the single mom in Hazard or Paducah buying diapers for her kid help pay their way across the mighty Ohio.

But downstream in Louisville, civic leaders have agreed to toll a new bridge to Indiana to replace one shut due to structural decline. What makes Northern Kentucky so special? One would think the Tea Partiers would buy their own amphibious vehicles before raising taxes to pay for a fancy new bridge.

As long as this sort of “Northern Kentucky Exceptionalism” holds sway in Frankfort, plan on many more wasted hours on I-75, listening to the folks on public radio explain the latest two-for-one matching grant.