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Governors tout discounted tolls for new Brent Spence bridge project in northern Kentucky

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COVINGTON, Kentucky — The governors of Ohio and Kentucky on Wednesday proposed a 50 percent discount on tolls for people who frequently commute across the Ohio River in an effort to accelerate plans to replace a decaying bridge that has become a symbol of the country's infrastructure woes.

No one knows how much the tolls would be for the $2.6 billion project to replace the double-decker Brent Spence Bridge that connects Covington and Cincinnati. But the agreement by Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich was meant as an olive branch of sorts to the northern Kentucky state legislative delegation, which has consistently blocked efforts to use tolls to pay for the project to replace the 50-year-old bridge. The span now carries more vehicles than it was designed to hold and traffic frequently gets snarled up on it.

In addition, both governors agreed their states would split the cost of the project evenly and pledged to come up with a financing plan to pay for the bridge by the end of the year so the legislatures in both states could vote on it in 2016. But both agreed the plan would have to include tolls on the new bridge unless "Manna falls out of heaven from the federal government," Beshear said.

Kasich, who was re-elected to a second term last year, urged northern Kentucky's business leaders to contact their lawmakers, who he said "operate with blind and extreme ideology and are stopping real progress."

"We have done everything we can possibly do in Ohio," Kasich said, referring to a bill he signed last year authorizing tolls to pay for the bridge. "(Beshear) can't force a group of legislators who want to put their heads in the sand to go forward and do something that needs to be done. He needs help from all of you."

State Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, said he is glad state officials are trying to lower the cost of the project. But he said most of the traffic on the Brent Spence Bridge is northern Kentuckians who commute to Cincinnati for work, and it would be unfair for them to have to pay the majority of the tolls.

"It's the responsibility of the federal government to maintain its interstate system and if Gov. Kasich wants to chastise somebody, I would suggest that Kasich contact his good friend Speaker of the (U.S.) House (of Representatives John) Boehner and suggest that he does his job as a federal legislator, which is to support the federal highway system," Simpson said.

While the financing portion of the bridge likely won't be up for a vote until next year, the issue could play a large role in this year's brief legislative session when lawmakers try to pass a bill that would allow state and local governments to partner with the private sector to build construction projects. State lawmakers passed the public-private partnership, or "P3", legislation last year. But Beshear vetoed the bill because it specifically excluded tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge.

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