July 3, 2019 1:45 PM, EDT

Kentucky Unveils Potential Statewide Projects

But Financing Questions Remain
Brent Spence BridgeBrent Spence Bridge by Ohio Department of Transportation

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The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s list of projects that will be considered as candidates for state transportation funding includes improvement plans for several major freight corridors.

Although Kentucky Trucking Association President Rick Taylor acknowledged the importance of these projects, he expressed doubt over how they will be financed.

Unveiled June 25, KYTC’s list was derived from the State Highway Investment Formula for Tomorrow (SHIFT), which helps officials prioritize transportation projects, and will inform the upcoming 2020 Highway Plan. SHIFT uses data on safety, asset management, congestion, economic growth and cost-benefit ratios to assess projects.

Some of the highest-ranked projects include major widening efforts along interstates 75 and 64, which Taylor described as important freight routes. I-75 runs north-south through the state. I-64 runs east-west, bisecting Louisville.

“Widening [interstates] 75 and 64 are things that we would support, truckingwise. Those are important corridors for us,” Taylor said. “There’s just a question about how they’re going to pay for it.”

Specifically, Taylor said one issue is that Kentucky hasn’t altered its fuel tax rate to keep pace with vehicles’ improved fuel efficiency. Kentucky’s excise tax rate is 21.6 cents per gallon for diesel and 24.6 cents per gallon for gasoline. State lawmakers adjusted the tax structure in 2015 to prevent decreasing revenues, which Taylor said “stopped the bleeding.” However, legislators have not enacted a tax rate hike.

Taylor pointed out that Kentucky’s neighbors — Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee — have enacted fuel tax increases in recent years.

“Infrastructure funding is a huge deal for us, but unlike our surrounding states, we’ve not raised our fuel tax,” Taylor said. “Everybody around us has. We’re kind of an island.”

Another project that appears high on KYTC’s list is the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries interstates 71 and 75 over the Ohio River. Originally opened in 1963, the Brent Spence Bridge has been plagued by dilapidation and capacity issues for years.

A major thoroughfare that links to Cincinnati, the Brent Spence Bridge supports the movement of $417 billion in freight every year, according to KYTC spokeswoman Naitore Djigbenou. The structure can no longer accommodate the volume of vehicles that traverse it. The bridge was designed to accommodate 80,000 vehicles per day and is currently carrying twice that volume. Some 26,726 of these daily crossings are made by trucks.

Ultimately, the plan is for KYTC and the Ohio Department of Transportation to work together to refurbish the existing bridge and construct a new one nearby. Additionally, the project will involve roadway improvements to the routes leading up to the bridge on both sides of the river.

“Access to two bridges will increase the capacity and allow for unimpeded traffic crossing the river,” Djigbenou said. “Traffic that is entering and exiting the freeway in and around the bridge area will be separated from through-traffic, which will help reduce congestion and stop-and-go traffic that contribute to accidents.”

ODOT spokesman Brian Cunningham, who represents the region of southwest Ohio that includes Cincinnati, said funding solutions remain a challenge. For example, Ohio has the ability to levy tolls on the bridge, but Kentucky does not. In 2016, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed a law that said tolls can’t be a part of any project connecting Kentucky and Ohio without the Kentucky General Assembly’s approval. In essence, the bill killed the possibility of Kentucky levying tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge.

Officials in both states continue to examine funding possibilities. Djigbenou said that, once funding is identified, project development will continue. Development will involve an updated environmental assessment, a detailed engineering plan and acquisition of necessary parcels of land.

In addition to statewide projects, Kentucky’s SHIFT program is also used to determine prioritization for regional projects.

According to a KYTC press release, the next step will be for local officials and transportation leaders representing area development districts, metropolitan planning organizations and KYTC offices to meet and determine projects that will have regional impacts.

The statewide and regional lists created through SHIFT 2020 scoring will influence the creation of the Recommended Highway Plan this fall.