I71 and I-75 merge together briefly at Cincinnati Ohio and then pull back apart 20 miles later in Northern Kentucky. The Brent Spence Bridge collects these two interstates in Cincinnati and then funnels them together across the Ohio River. This confluence in Cincinnati represents not only the gateway to the south but also a choke-point on the Interstate Highway System for trucking carrying more than $417B, more than 3% of the US GDP, across this bridge each year.
The Brent Spence Bridge was originally designed to carry 85,000 vehicles per day and as a major corridor for freight traffic it is expected to need to support over 200,000 vehicles per day by the end of 2013. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has ruled the bridge functionally obsolete. The emergency break-down lanes were ripped out years ago to handle more traffic and with demands growing daily there is much debate going on about what to do and how to pay for it. The what to do part is made difficult by the terrain, coming into Kentucky from Ohio the highway cuts a gouge through the side of a hill and climbs steeply through what was once the deadliest section of interstate in the country, referred to locally as Death Hill.
Many of the issues of Death Hill were corrected but the terrain and existing development on both sides of the river leave precious few options for how to configure a new or modified bridge. Most of the design options have several miles of approach from both the north or the south being impacted, this is going to be a big project if it gets done at all.
Engineers and politicians are pouring over the options trying to find a viable solution and with cost estimates coming in around $2.5B everyone is looking at where the funding will come from. Spanning two states on a Federal Highway system also creates questions about who should be paying what at the federal, state and even county level. The only thing for certain at this point is that no one is stepping forward with a clcear plan of how to get this work paid for.
Given the price tag and the stiff arm from the federal government the discussion has recently centered on the likely scenario that this work will somehow involve tolling. While local residents are organizing opposition to tolls proposals the stark reality is that tolling will likely be involved in this and most other meg-projects on the country’s decaying highway infrastructure. A recent Tax Foundation study identified that the share of road spending covered by fuel taxes, tolls and other fees amounted to at best a 59% coverage in Delaware and a low of 5% in Alaska. The study further concluded that tolls and usage based fees will continue to increase as the costs of maintaining and developing new highway infrastructure continues to rise.
The Interstate Highway System comprises about 47,000 miles of roadway including 2,900 miles of toll roads. The initial build cost of the entire system has been estimated at more than $400B which puts some perspective on the estimated $2,7B cost of the Brent Spence bridge project. Federal legislation actually banned tolling on the Interstate Highway system though some of the early projects were grandfathered into the system. Many of these roads, such as the Massachusetts Turnpike, are part of the system but are generally not allowed to receive federal funds for maintenance and improvement.
The SAFETEA-LU legislation passed in 2005 encourages the use of innovative financing in recognition of the inability for federal highway funds to support the costs of ongoing maintenance and development. That’s Washington speak for tolls. The Public-Private Partnerships, commonly referred to as 3P partnerships, are contracted partnerships between governments and private parties. This economic development model is gaining increasing popularity across the globe and in the US Highway System as well. The Ohio Department of Transportation, ODOT, and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, KYTC, are both engaged in a Value For Money study that is designed to look at options for funding and delivering this project.
3P ventures are generally a successful means of financing large projects that federal, state and local governments often languish over. They can also bring people and resources to a project in a timely manner that bring innovative ideas and shared risk. The inclusion of private money also brings with the need to see how that money is returned and for highway projects that almost always involves usage fees such as tolls.
It is too early to know if the new Brent Spence Bridge will be paid for with tolls but the opposition against them needs to come to the table with more than just demands against a federal government saddled in debt. As more projects get completed in this manner expect more tolls on our interstate highways. Carriers of freight bear a significant portion of tolls, especially in the critical I-71/I-75 corridor and a certain amount of traffic can be expected to be diverted based on those tolls. Ultimately, the cost of these tolls will get reflected in the freight that is transported though the immediate is often felt first, and the sharpest, by the one paying the toll.