The possibility of tolls to pay for a $2.6-billion bridge replacement project in Northern Kentucky has enraged conservatives and become an issue in the U.S. Senate campaign.
Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes have ideas—very different ideas—to keep tolls off the Brent Spence Bridge. The issue highlights the different campaign philosophies by Kentucky’s major party Senate candidates.
McConnell on Monday introduced the Emergency Interstate Bridge Safety Act, which he said could cover the cost of the project. The proposal would repeal the prevailing wage law known as the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act. Davis-Bacon allows generally higher construction wages on federal projects.
Offset spending from McConnell’s bill could go to the project to replace the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Covington and Cincinnati.
In a statement, McConnell called the Davis-Bacon Act “more obsolete than the Brent Spence Bridge itself.”
Grimes’ plan, introduced last Friday, would close federal tax code loopholes that, according to her campaign, could raise $75 billion—more than enough to pay for the project.
As Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Scott Wartman noted, the reaction of local officials to both proposals was less than enthusiastic:
Both proposals left Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank underwhelmed. He said both proposals stand little chance of passing.
“His chances of getting Davis-Bacon erased is between zero and none,” Frank said. “I think at some point there’s going to have to be a reset in how we fund infrastructure. The gasoline tax is bringing in fewer and fewer dollars.”
Brent Cooper, interim president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber, said that while the proposals won’t provide a total solution to the bridge, it is progress that the leaders are talking about the project.
“What we saw today was not a check,” Cooper said. “It was another option, another piece of the puzzle of getting dollars for a critical piece of infrastructure.”
Cincinnati’s NPR station, WVXU, also reported on the reaction of area officials to the plans, particularly that of McConnell’s wish to repeal the prevailing wage law.
By getting rid of this requirement, McConnell says, it will provide $13 billion to the Brent Spence and other bridges in need of repair over a ten year period.
McConnell said, “Look, I’m opposed to tolls. The reason I’m suggesting this now is because Frankfort has not come up with a solution. The session is over. We know no solution has been put forward and so we need to go in a different direction.”
Former Rep. Geoff Davis was at the event. He said, “This is the most credible proposal I’ve heard of.”
State Efforts Against Tolls
Both campaigns are seizing on an issue that has riled much of Northern Kentucky, particularly that area’s Tea Party constituency.
The conservative anti-tolling hostility is also influencing Democrats in the state legislature.
For example, state Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, introduced an amendment that would have prohibited the use of tolls to pay for projects relating to infrastructure connecting Kentucky and Ohio.
Simpson’s amendment was attached to a bill sponsored by Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, permitting public-private partnerships to fund capital construction projects like the Brent Spence Bridge.
Her bill, along with Simpson’s amendment, passed the General Assembly, but was vetoed by Gov. Steve Beshear, who said “it is imprudent to eliminate any potential means of financing construction on such a vital piece of infrastructure.”
Meanwhile, state Republicans attempted to repeal prevailing wage this year, but the efforts were only tangentially related to the Brent Spence Bridge.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Taylor Mill Republican who owns a concrete construction business, introduced an amendment to Combs’ aforementioned bill that would eliminate the prevailing wage. State Rep. Jim DeCesare, a Bowling Green Republican who works for a construction management firm, introduced a bill to exempt school facilities from the definition of “public works” projects regarding prevailing wage projects.
Both McDaniel’s amendment and DeCesare’s bill died in their respective chambers.
Here are the details of Grimes’ plan, which was sourced to recommendations by a 2013 Senate Budget Committee.