Brent Spence Bridge

Pictured: Brent Spence bridge linking Kentucky and Ohio. (WDRB/file)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The head of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce suggested Thursday that state lawmakers could put tolls in play as a funding source for a new bridge and other work near the Cincinnati-area Brent Spence Bridge.

Those fees aren’t allowed for interstate crossings between Kentucky and Ohio – a prohibition included in a broader 2016 bill that gave public agencies more flexibility to team with private developers on large ventures.

But Ashli Watts, the Kentucky chamber’s president and CEO, said on a conference call with reporters and business leaders that this year’s General Assembly has time to remove that ban.

One option, she said, would be to add it to a measure seeking to raise the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. House Bill 561 also adds new fees to license plates and electric vehicles, among other things, and changes a revenue-sharing formula for road fund revenue between cities and counties.

Northern Kentucky lawmakers long have resisted tolls on Ohio River crossings with Cincinnati. In 2009, those legislators led bipartisan opposition to the creation of a two-state authority to oversee the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville. And in 2016, Watts said, they insisted on the toll ban for Kentucky-Ohio bridges in the public-private partnership bill.

“As long as the northern Kentucky contingent of legislators are okay with the repeal of that, then there should be no problem getting that inserted into the (2021) bill,” Watts said during a forum with executives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, state chambers and local groups representing Cincinnati and northern Kentucky.

State Rep. Sal Santoro (R-Florence), the chief sponsor of the gas tax bill, said Thursday his region’s legislators have not discussed removing the toll ban, nor has anyone asked him to repeal it in his current bill.

“We haven't really talked about it in the Northern Kentucky caucus at all. Not yet,” he said.

Santoro acknowledged that there isn’t a funding plan to pay for a new crossing next to the Brent Spence, which carries I-71 and I-75 between Covington, Ky., and Cincinnati, and other work in the corridor, one of the busiest in the U.S.

“They keep saying to me, ‘How are we going to build a bridge?’ and I keep saying, ‘Well, you need funding.’ And don't think Washington's going to get it. So if I can get my infrastructure bill through, then we can start talking,” he said.

Still, he said, tolling is a “hard push” because of the potential added cost to many northern Kentucky businesses that cross the river into Cincinnati.

The push for Kentucky lawmakers to revisit the toll ban came as Kentucky and Ohio business leaders and federal officials sought to bring new attention to the aging Brent Spence, which was closed for weeks last fall after a fiery truck crash damaged the structure.  

A new campaign includes an ad highlighting the bridge’s condition and safety concerns.

The leaders are calling on Congress to pass a sweeping infrastructure bill by July 4.

“We're making a plea to our federal delegation, to our leaders throughout the country, but also at the local and state level, to start investing in roads and bridges again,” said Brent Cooper, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “The cost of inaction is so much greater than the cost of actually fixing things in the first place.”

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