Truckers have known for a year that tolls would likely be involved in replacing an Interstate 75 bridge in Greater Cincinnati, but new details of the plan may have them raising even more red flags than before.
The Ohio Department of Transportation and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet released their joint financial plan for the Brent Spence Bridge on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013. The bridge connects Cincinnati with northern Kentucky over the Ohio River as part of an important north-south freight corridor.
On one hand, the report recognizes the importance of trucking in the corridor, but on the other hand, it seeks to capitalize on the amount of truck traffic.
“The I-75 corridor … is a major north-south transportation corridor, one of the busiest freight movement (trucking) routes, and an important link for the local, regional, and national economies,” transportation officials stated in the report submitted to the Federal Highway Administration. Federal approval is required for interstate projects involving tolls.
The report does not aim to set toll rates, nor does it say how long a toll would last on the bridge. Officials cite an example involving a 35-year concession but do not say for certain how long an agreement they may seek for a private-sector operator to maintain the bridge and collect the tolls.
Officials estimate the project at $2.63 billion, but once interest and payments to a private operator are taken into account, the cost estimate rises to $3.57 billion.
“We see almost $1 billion dollars of the $3.5 billion in toll revenues going to debt service and profit margins for a private investor. That’s a big question mark,” OOIDA Director of Government Affairs Ryan Bowley said. “We also don’t know how long the tolls would last or if tolls would go up every year.”
The fear, Bowley says, is that truckers will be asked to take on high toll rates while local motorists get offered discounts.
“Based on the initial information in this financial plan, and based on what we’ve seen from other similar proposals, it certainly looks like things are headed that way,” Bowley said.
Under an agreement that still has yet to be inked, Ohio and Kentucky officials would form a bi-state tolling authority to build and operate the bridge.
Bowley says bi-state tolling authorities recently came under scrutiny by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Among the issues listed in a GAO report was a lack of federal oversight.
OOIDA supports a bill that resides in congressional committees called the Commuter Protection Act. It would reinstate federal oversight of bi-state tolling authorities.
“One of the things we are going to be focusing on in the next highway bill is getting the Commuter Protection Act passed,” Bowley said. “It would reinstate the federal government’s ability to review tolls set by bi-state tolling authorities and make sure they meet a ‘just and reasonable’ standard.”
He said that’s one way to ensure truckers aren’t unfairly targeted by interstate tolls.
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