Kennedy and Lincoln Bridges

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – On Tuesday, after the U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Gov. Andy Beshear said the Brent Spence Bridge rehabilitation project was likely to benefit from Kentucky’s share of the federal funds.

If that happens, “we can pay for our portion in cash. No tolls,” Beshear said.

It’s been conventional wisdom in Kentucky for more than a decade that the state’s largest road and bridge projects can’t be covered entirely by traditional fuel-tax revenue, which would be stretched thin on construction work costing billions of dollars.

That led to tolls for new Ohio River crossings in Louisville, and serious talk of tolls to finance the state’s other two proposed “megaprojects” – the I-71/I-75 Brent Spence corridor between Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, and an I-69 bridge between Henderson, Ky., and Evansville, Ind.

But the bill now heading to the U.S. House could change that.

Kentucky State Senate President Robert Stivers echoed Beshear on Friday, saying those projects both could avoid the driver fees if the measure being debated in Congress becomes law. He told reporters during a virtual news conference that there is a “real potential” that Kentucky will receive enough federal money to meet the state’s current costs for the Brent Spence and I-69 work.

“Let me make this clear: If this does not go through, this would consume virtually all our state budget to try to build these two bridges for years,” said Stivers, R-Manchester.

Kentucky would get $4.6 billion over the next five years for roads, highways and bridges, according to an analysis of the bill from the office of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Large projects like the Brent Spence and I-69 bridges also could compete for $17.5 billion in national grants.

McConnell voted for the bill, which cleared the Senate 69-30. Kentucky’s other Senator, Republican Rand Paul, voted against it.

Of the $4.6 billion in road funds projected for Kentucky, Stivers said $2 billion would go toward the Brent Spence project ($1.3 billion) and I-69 bridge ($700 million). That would cover the state's share of construction for each, he said.

The Kentucky General Assembly would have to allocate the federal dollars. Asked about any political obstacles with pursuing toll-free bridges in those areas while Louisville relied on tolls for its project, Stivers raised the possibility that the toll-backed bonds could be “called,” or redeemed well before they mature.

But he cautioned that it’s still unclear how the federal funds could be spent.

“Jefferson County-Louisville, as our largest city, our largest metropolitan area, will get substantial dollars from this,” Stivers said. “But I think they would be glad to … offset anything they may have spent already on the bridges that were built there at the two different sites.”

Kentucky counts on tolls from the RiverLink bridges to not only pay off construction debt but also cover maintenance and repairs and other costs on the I-65 Kennedy and Lincoln bridges in downtown Louisville and the upriver Lewis and Clark Bridge.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet did not respond to questions Friday about whether the bill could offer any toll relief for the Louisville project, or let tolls be removed on the Louisville bridges if the other megaprojects are built without tolls.

State Sen. Jimmy Higdon, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said in an interview that the federal infrastructure bill might make it possible to avoid tolls on the Brent Spence and I-69 projects. But, he added, lawmakers from across the state would be part of that decision making.

“There's 138 members of General Assembly, and they're all going to have an opinion on how we should do it,” said Higdon, whose district takes in part of Jefferson County. “But as a fairness issue, it does bring that question to bear: What about Louisville?”

The state legislature cleared the way for tolls on the Louisville bridges in 2009, when it approved a process that ultimately led to the creation of a bi-state authority of Kentucky and Indiana members. It was that body that crafted the tolling approach.

Lawmakers banned tolls on interstate crossings between Kentucky and Ohio in 2016, a move that would apply to the Brent Spence project. But the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is among those pushing for an end to that prohibition.

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