COLUMBUS -- Taxpayers will spend $8 million to study the impacts of tolling a new Ohio River bridge -- including effects on minorities and low-income workers.
Tolling is the only way to pay for the reconstruction of the functionally obsolete Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River, according to officials from both Ohio and Kentucky. But tolling on the new I-71 / I-75 bridge may cause traffic problems as people use other routes to avoid paying, the Ohio Department of Transportation said in a request for money for the study. In addition, extra tolls could have an outsize impact on low-income workers or minorities, the request said.
So the Ohio Controlling Board on Monday approved an $8 million traffic study, the next step in the estimated $2.6 billion price tag on the bridge. The study will be part of a recommendation on toll prices, ODOT spokesman Brian Cunningham said.
Depending on what the analysis finds, the state may set variable toll pricing based on whether the driver is a local commuter or a cross-country traveler. The pricing could also consider traffic volumes, time of day or vehicle size.
"They're going to try to keep the toll as low as possible," Cunningham said.
He couldn't say how the states might adjust the tolling to help account for unequal impacts on different socioeconomic or minority groups.
If the study finds an "inequitable negative impact ... it may be necessary to provide some type of enhancement for those income or minority classes," according to the ODOT request. An analysis will also consider how the bridge reconstruction could affect noise levels, historic landmarks and the environment.
The consultant running the study -- Columbus-based HNTB Ohio -- will hold public hearings and "open house-style" meetings in Covington and Cincinnati, according to the ODOT request.
Ohio and Kentucky are expected to split the bill evenly for the $8 million expense, Cunningham said. Ohio is waiting for Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear to sign off on an updated memorandum of understanding about the study's costs. Officials will schedule the study in the next few weeks.
The lack of Beshear's signature was enough for one Controlling Board member to vote against the $8 million expense. Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Township, wanted ODOT to wait to request the money until Kentucky had officially agreed to split the cost of the study, according to a Gongwer News Service report.
The traffic analysis would be put on hold without the Controlling Board's approval of the $8 million, said Andrew Bremer, ODOT's deputy director of legislative affairs. So the Controlling Board OK'd the expense, with Coley objecting.
Kentucky has yet to receive the updated memorandum of understanding from Ohio, Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said. But state officials don't foresee any problem in agreeing to the terms for the traffic study, he said. Traffic analyses such as this one are standard for bridge projects like the Brent Spence, Wolfe said.
Despite the progress on the traffic study, Northern Kentucky lawmakers continue to hold back efforts to start actual construction of the bridge. Ohio this spring passed a bill that would allow electronic assessment of tolls on the bridge, but Northern Kentucky lawmakers refuse to authorize tolls on the bridge. Kentucky owns the bridge, and studies show a majority of daily commuters who use the bridge start in Kentucky.
Some top Northern Kentucky executives and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce broke a years-long silence this year and endorsed tolls. But that did little to influence lawmakers in this year's General Assembly, which ended in April without a finance plan for the bridge.
Still, Ohio Rep. Dale Mallory, R-West End, called the plan for the study "a significant step forward."
"This project is long overdue," he said. "I'm glad to see that we continue to make progress."
The 50-year-old, double-decked Brent Spence greets interstate travelers across the Ohio River with narrow lanes, lack of emergency shoulders and limited visibility. The bridge also carries double the amount of traffic it was originally intended for, although it is structurally sound, officials say.