If tolls aren’t the answer, what is?

by Scott Wartman Cincinnati.com
1/30/13

Fierce opposition from residents and politicians in Northern Kentucky over tolls has many searching for other options to finance the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge replacement. But tolls are becoming more common around the country as alternative funding sources dwindle, national experts say.

A raise in the federal gas tax and a change in how Kentucky allocates federal funds have come up as suggestions at recent public meetings in Northern Kentucky on ways to help pay for the new Interstate 71/75 bridge.

But many localities around the country have found themselves having to pay for their own highway projects.

A decrease in federal road funds and a climate hostile to earmarks and tax increases in Congress mean the federal government won’t pick up the tab like it’s done since the 1950s, said David Goldberg, spokesman for Transportation for America, a coalition of national, state and local organizations to reform transportation funding.

“It is really hard to get these multistate projects done in an era of scarce resources,” Goldberg said. “It is almost inevitable that some larger share will come from state and local taxpayers. It may come in the form of tolls or from some other revenue.”

Many states are looking to local taxes for road projects, a USA Today report found. Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Michigan are considering tolls, higher sales taxes, new taxes on gas stations and higher motor vehicle registration fees to fund transportation projects. Oregon, Washington and Vermont have studied replacing or supplementing the gas tax with a tax based on miles traveled by car.

Counties and cities in California in recent years have passed local sales taxes and other taxes to fund large infrastructure projects, said Alison Premo Black, chief economist with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

Congress hasn’t raised the federal gas tax since 1993. The 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax buys 33 percent less than it did in 1993 due to inflation, according to the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission.

The state gas tax of 29.9 cents a gallon rises and falls annually with the price of gasoline based on a formula and goes into the state road fund. Both pools of money face competition from other projects around the state.

Lawmakers and residents remain resolute that tolls will do significant economic damage to Northern Kentucky. Many have argued that the situation in Northern Kentucky is the reverse of the two tolled bridges being built in Louisville.

There, the majority of the commuters cross the river from Indiana. In Northern Kentucky, most of the residents crossing the Brent Spence Bridge come from Kentucky. During morning rush hour, 63 percent to 65 percent of the local drivers crossing the bridge come from Kentucky, according to a study from the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

Some hope the findings in a $4 million study commissioned by Ohio and Kentucky to research different financing methods for the bridge will sway Northern Kentucky lawmakers to allow private financing for the bridge project.

“Waiting to complete the project will only drive up costs”, said Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. “It is so important that we focus on what we need,” Policinski said.

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