With new Brent Spence Bridge tolling ban, sponsors of public-private partnership bills optimistic about their chances

01/31/2016 07:08 PM

FRANKFORT — Legislation that would authorize public-private partnerships for state, local and transportation projects came close to becoming law in 2014, but the estimated $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge reconstruction project in northern Kentucky has proven an insurmountable obstacle for the past two years.

Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, has sponsored so-called P3 bills in previous sessions, one vetoed by Gov. Steve Beshear in 2014 because it prohibited tolling to pay for the Brent Spence Bridge’s replacement and a second in 2015 that couldn’t pass the Republican-led Senate.

This year, she’s hoping provisions prohibiting tolling on interstate highway projects between Kentucky and Ohio and mandating legislative approval for P3 agreements on such projects gives House Bill 309 a better chance at becoming law.

She also has help in the Senate, with Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, sponsoring an identical bill in Senate Bill 132. Both pieces of legislation were filed on Wednesday and blend aspects of the previous pair of P3 bill, she said.

“Yes, it does exempt the issue in northern Kentucky so that that doesn’t become the issue that would stymie P3 as a whole for the commonwealth, so I think we’ve got a good bill put together,” Combs said. “… I’m very optimistic that we’ll be successful this year.”

Combs says she’s helping bring Wise up to speed on public-private partnerships, as he’s the first senator to introduce a P3 bill in the chamber.

The bills would allow state and local governments to partner with private entities in competitively bid capital projects. Construction that exceeds $25 million would need to be authorized by the General Assembly.

Northern Kentucky lawmakers like Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, are the most vocal against tolling for the Brent Spence Bridge. A similar $2.3 billion bridge construction project in Louisville and southern Indiana will be partially financed through tolling.

When Combs’s House Bill 443 reached the Senate after an 84-13 vote in the House last year, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, filed a floor amendment that would bar tolling on interstate projects between Kentucky and Ohio. The bill never passed committee.

Wise said he’s “hopeful we have relieved the situation there of any members that may be hesitant to have voted on that before.”

“I’m from a rural part of the state where many times infrastructure projects maybe can get kind of lost to the side, but I think it’s time,” he said.

“I think we’ll look at economic growth for Kentucky as a way that we can move forward. It’s just another tool in the toolbox, and a lot of times now local government comes with two hands out asking for money. Maybe now they’ll just have one hand out because of what this bill can do to help them.”

Thayer, whose Senate district covers Scott and Grant counties and part of Kenton, said eliminating the use of tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge project “helps a lot,” but he still has some questions about P3 arrangements in general.

He says he’s “keeping an open mind” on the subject as he continues talks with Wise and constituents in northern Kentucky on whether the proposal resolves any issues regarding the multi-billion-dollar bridge project.

“I still need to be convinced that P3 for roads and bridges is a good idea,” Thayer said. “I heard that there are some problems with it in other states where the private companies that take over our roads might end up not liking their return on investment and they get out of the deal, leave the taxpayers holding the bag on the deal.

“If there’s one thing that government should do and do well, it’s roads and bridges, and I’m not yet convinced that getting the private sector involved in that is good.”

Wise said he and others have “had great conversations” with Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration about P3 legislation.

“We found some very good support on this legislation, especially with how this is particularly drafted,” he said. “I think you’re also going to find a lot of people in the state parks could look at this as well as possibly an initiative that we can look to maybe refurbishing and looking at some of our state parks that may need some upgrades, and I think P3 could be an excellent avenue that we can use for those types of projects.”

Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said the governor “favors public-private partnerships when they make financial sense for taxpayers.”

“We are reviewing the legislation and are working closely with the General Assembly to pass legislation that provides flexibility in the way we partner with private sector business for public projects, while ensuring taxpayers and are protected,” she said in an email to Pure Politics.

In her final session as a state representative, Combs is hopeful that a P3 bill will become law.

“I think it will,” she said. “I’m very optimistic about it.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.