By Buckner Hinkle
Highways, bridges and other infrastructure are deteriorating in Kentucky and throughout the United States. State and national highway trust funds are depleted to inadequate levels. The U.S. Department of Transportation warns that federal reimbursements for state highways and bridges will be reduced in July. Some states are already cancelling projects. Political will to address inadequate infrastructure funding through discretionary appropriations is lacking.
The private sector can help. In many states it is already is. But not in Kentucky. Why? Thirty-five other states, including every state contiguous to Kentucky, have specific legislation that enables public private partnerships (known as “P3’s”) whereby construction projects are financed, designed and built by private companies under contracts with state and local governments. In some cases, the private companies also operate and maintain the projects for many years, then return control of the projects to the government. Not in Kentucky, however, because Kentucky has no P3 legislation.
P3 projects in other states have built new highways, bridges, water treatment facilities, arenas and other public assets. These projects aid economic development, enhance quality of life and generate jobs. States such as Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Florida and Texas reap the rewards of robust P3 programs. Colorado has just finalized a $425 million 50-year contract to improve and maintain 30 miles of high traffic highway near Denver. Why not Kentucky?
We have the opportunity to put Kentucky in the mainstream. House Bill 407, introduced by state Rep. Leslie Combs, would allow P3’s on a limited basis at state and local levels. The bill is not perfect and can be improved, but Rep. Combs, Sen. Sara Beth Gregory and other legislators are to be commended for passage of HB 407.
Opposition to HB 407 focuses mainly on tolls, which often provide financial support for P3 projects at varied levels. The Brent-Spence bridge, which connects Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, is a prime example of deteriorating infrastructure that could be restored and improved through P3. Anti-tolling advocates oppose P3 in the misguided belief that discretionary government funding will become available years later. They might as well wait for the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, because there are no reliable signs that discretionary funding will materialize.
Opposition to tolls ignores Kentucky history. The Mountain Parkway and the Bluegrass Parkway and other highways are examples of successful projects that were supported by tolls and are toll free today.
Opponents also ignore the broad purpose of HB 407. Rebuilding the Brent-Spence Bridge is not the primary intent of HB 407. Instead, the bill envisions a broad array of eligible state and local projects. Sacrificing the entire bill in opposition to tolling one project is short sighted.
Kentucky lags behind other states in many ways. P3’s are permissive opportunities to let the private sector help meet public needs. Let’s not squander an opportunity to improve our infrastructure and compete economically. Contact your Kentucky representative and senator. Encourage their support for implementing HB 407.
Buckner Hinkle is a Member/Partner of Stites & Harbison – Lexington office and Service Group Leader for the firm’s Construction Group.