As a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers continues to negotiate a deal on infrastructure, the latest Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives Kentucky an overall C- grade, with good marks for energy and solid waste infrastructure; mediocre ratings for airports, bridges, and infrastructure; and poor scores for roads, levees, and dams.
“I think of the 9,069 bridges that are today ranked in fair to poor condition, or the 8,000 lane miles out of 38,000 [miles of road] in our state that are ranked fair to poor,” says Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray.
Beyond the everyday needs for safe roads, clean drinking water, wastewater treatment, and broadband service, Gray says infrastructure is critical to economic improvement.
“The governor has been clear that he wants to give every person in Kentucky a leg up in terms of opportunity,” says Gray. “Giving that leg up in economic opportunity means having an infrastructure, having a transportation system that is competitive.”
But with a growing list of new projects as well as needed repairs and upgrades to existing infrastructure, funding remains a key stumbling block. City and county governments have few options for generating revenues for infrastructure projects. Many lawmakers in Frankfort are wary of gas tax hikes or other fiscal measures that could help. And federal lawmakers continue to debate the scope of a major infrastructure package and how to pay for it.
As those debates drag on, local government officials in Kentucky’s rural counties and bigger cities are left with little more than frustration.
“We don’t have the funding available to us to deliver that quality of road that we believe we need to for our citizens,” says Johnson County Judge Executive Mark McKenzie.
“We need to have a far greater support for infrastructure investment today so that our people can enjoy the fruits of expanded economic growth in the future,” says Covington Mayor Joseph Meyer.
Options for an Ohio River Crossing in Northern Kentucky
Of the thousands of infrastructure projects needed in the commonwealth, the one that gets most of the attention is the Brent Spence Bridge that carries traffic on Interstates 71 and 75 between northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.
“The Brent Spence is a poster child, not just in Kentucky for infrastructure needs, but in the country,” says Gray. “It’s symptomatic of the problems.”
When it opened in 1963, the double-decker span was meant to carry 80,000 vehicles a day on three traffic lanes heading north and south. Now, Gray says, it has four lanes in both directions (with no emergency lanes) and carries some 160,000 vehicles a day. The Federal Highway Administration deems the span “functionally obsolete” because it handles more traffic that it was designed to carry.
Because of high volume and narrow lanes, the Brent Spence is the site of frequent accidents, including a truck collision and fire last November that damaged the bridge and required it to be closed for 41 days for repairs.
A debate has raged for years over a replacement span or a companion bridge to reduce the demands on the Brent Spence. But an estimated price tag of $2.5 billion has put the project out of reach for the states of Kentucky and Ohio without either federal aid or a toll on users.
Covington Mayor Meyer is among the local and state politicians who oppose the idea of charging drivers to cross the bridge. He says Kentuckians commuting to work in Cincinnati would pay a bigger share of the tolls, yet the commonwealth would receive a smaller percentage of tolling revenues than Ohio. He also says research indicates that drivers of as many as 77,000 vehicles a day would seek alternate routes to avoid paying a $2 toll. Meyer fears many of those people would wind up clogging Covington streets, as they did last year when the bridge was temporarily closed.
“This project, the way it’s designed, is making Covington and its people, and its neighborhoods, and its businesses collateral damage to a project that really doesn’t serve us very well,” says Meyer.
The mayor contends the solution doesn’t have to involve laying more pavement. For example, he says a better, cheaper option would be to divert I-71 traffic around Cincinnati by using the existing I-471 or I-275 bypasses. He says that would reduce the impacts on Covington, eliminate the burden of tolls, and relieve congestion and improve safety on the Brent Spence Bridge.
“We need to think about these transportation issues in a different way,” says Meyer. “We just can’t keep widening and widening and widening, and pretend it’s going to solve the problem because it doesn’t.”
Secretary Gray agrees something must be done since the bridge has become a dangerous bottleneck in a major artery of interstate commerce. Chunks of crumbling concrete from the structure have also fallen on cars. While not taking a position on the tolling issue, Gray says it’s difficult to get such transportation projects completed today without some form of local funding.
“That said, perhaps Washington would be willing to step up and support this project in a more meaningful way because it does represent so much to the nation’s economy,” says Gray.
Small Counties and Communities Also Struggle for Road Funding
Johnson County is far from the congestion of urban interstate highways, but faces its own set of infrastructure challenges. Judge Executive McKenzie says the county of just under 23,000 people in eastern Kentucky is fighting to revitalize a local economy that’s reeling under the decline of the coal industry.
“We’re trying to re-invent ourselves and the way we do that is … with improved road systems,” he says.
McKenzie says the county has major road project needs to help lure people to live in the county and to make travel through it safer. The county also needs improvements to its rural and secondary roads. Johnson County receives about $150,000 a year in state aid for those projects, but McKenzie says that will fund only 2.5 miles of pavement in a county that has 350 miles of roads. With so little money available, he says road improvements are infrequent at best.
“Obviously we’re not talking about being able to upgrade roads in years,” he says. “We’re talking about decades.”
Federal COVID pandemic relief through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act did include money for some local infrastructure projects. But Kentucky League of Cities Executive Director and CEO J.D. Chaney says that was one-time money that came with many strings attached.
“It’s a great gift but it doesn’t fix the systemic issues,” says Chaney.
Local mayors and county judges including McKenzie have unsuccessfully lobbied state lawmakers for more options to generate their own revenues, such as local option sales taxes. He says city and county governments need more money for new roads and water and sewer projects as well as additional funds to maintain existing infrastructure.
Many local officials hope the infrastructure package that federal lawmakers are currently negotiating would help fund such local projects. But Chaney says that probably won’t happen.
“Most of that money in the federal plan is probably not going to translate into Judge McKenzie’s county roads or Mayor Meyer’s city streets,” says Chaney.
Even with no new infrastructure bill, the federal government will continue to spend billions on transportation projects across the country, according to Andrew McNeill, a visiting policy fellow at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions. He says current federal spending on roads and bridges will total about $450 billion over the next decade.
“The debate in Washington is not about whether or not we should invest in infrastructure because we are investing in infrastructure,” says McNeill. “The debate is about how much more to spend.”
Boosting the State Road Fund
Kentucky’s Road Fund gets revenues from the state motor fuels tax as well as from vehicle tax and license fees, and federal toll credits, which are set to expire this year.
For decades, the state tied its gas tax to the wholesale price of gasoline, which meant the rate could vary wildly. In 2015, the General Assembly changed that, creating a floor of 26 cents per gallon no matter how cheap the price of gas might become. That money is used to fund state and local transportation projects.
But with people driving more fuel-efficient cars, or in some cases all-electric vehicles, gas tax proceeds in Kentucky have dwindled. Fewer people driving during the pandemic also hurt tax revenues.
“We know the motor fuels tax and the motor vehicle usage tax… that model that we’ve counted on for decades is starting to fail,” says Chad LaRue, a former Transportation Cabinet engineer who is now executive director of the Kentucky Association of Highway Contractors. “It’s not providing the funding we need to keep up with our transportation system.”
“In 2020, we were $110 million less in motor fuels tax than we were in 2014, which was the peak,” Larue continues. “If you take inflation into account during that period, it’s about a 30 percent loss to county and city governments for their road funding.”
Recent proposals before the General Assembly in recent sessions would increase the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon, raise registration fees and taxes on certain vehicles, and institute an annual fee for hybrid and electric vehicles. Some city officials also want to change the formula for allocating Road Fund money, which sends more cash to county governments than to city governments.
But so far, legislative leaders have rejected those proposals, saying it’s not the right time to raise taxes and fees on Kentucky drivers.
“Kentucky falls further and further behind every time the legislature refuses to address the issue,” says Chaney. “It’s time for the legislature to tackle that as we’re watching every other state around us do it.”
Larue says road contractors are sensitive to the regressive nature of a gasoline tax. But he says even a 10-cent-a-gallon increase works out to be about $5 a month more for the average driver in the commonwealth.
Another issue is how the state awards road construction contracts. According to an analysis by the Bluegrass Institute, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is spending millions on dozens of single-bid contracts that exceed cost estimates made by state engineers. The organization recently called for a full audit of the agency’s bidding practices.
Cabinet Secretary Gray says given the rural nature of much of the state, there’s not always enough contractors available to generate a competitive bidding process. He also says there are many instances where the cabinet will rebid a project when it fails to receive an acceptable proposal. He also cites a study by the conservative Reason Foundation that indicates Kentucky has the lowest administrative costs per road mile of any state in the nation.
“What I’ve observed in the time that I’ve been here is that the cabinet does a very responsible job… in ensuring that the taxpayers are getting a competitive and responsible job done,” says Gray.
McNeill says he appreciates Gray’s private sector experience in the construction industry, but that doesn’t mean the cabinet’s contracting process shouldn’t be reviewed.
“I think… he might embrace the chance to audit the cabinet, look at the bidding practices, have a close look at how those bidding practices are managed, and communicate to the taxpayers whether or not they’re getting their most bang for the buck for these projects,” says McNeill.