Saturday, January 31, 2004

Bridge backers race clock


Congressmen make funding for I-75 span a priority

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., on Friday said he is "very confident" that the Brent Spence Bridge replacement project this spring will be awarded at least half the needed $750 million.

The highway portion of a key federal transportation funding bill hits the Senate floor soon.

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Kentucky highway officials earlier this week presented six concepts for replacing the bridge. A new bridge, built farther to the west, would carry all Interestate 75 traffic in four of the six preliminary scenarios.

"This is a very long and hard process, but we have been doing a job of selling that this is a project of need for the entire country," said Bunning. "I have been selling it on all the committees that I am on. And my confidence is very high that we'll get all the money necessary for all the engineering and studies, and even some construction money."

A group of Northern Kentucky business and political leaders will go to Washington next week to push once again for the project.

Bunning, along with Rep. Ken Lucas, D-Richwood, and three other members of Kentucky's congressional delegation, have officially requested $500 million in this version of the appropriation. Ohio highway officials have previously said they expect the Ohio approaches to cost the other $250 million. Ohio congressmen have supported the project as well.

The transportation funding bill comes up for renewal every six years. If not enough money is authorized this time around, the region could be forced to wait at least six years to get another shot at replacing the 40-year-old bridge.

Local and state officials stress that now is the time for the money. If nothing is done, the bridge has about 15 years of structural integrity left, by one estimate. Between engineering, environmental studies, acquiring property and actual construction, a new bridge could take as long as 12 years to build if funding is secured immediately.

Those years will count off quickly if the process to replace the bridge isn't well under way, officials say, adding that the structure has well-documented safety and congestion issues. An Enquirer investigation last September found that the Brent Spence had the seventh-highest accident rate among bridges of its kind nationally.

"We're really unable to do anything in terms of planning further without knowing what our federal funding will be for this," said Kentucky Transportation Cabinet deputy secretary Dick Murgatroyd, Kenton County judge-executive. "We hope to get a timeline in place to know what we can do when, in terms of study and engineering and the like, but without knowing how much is coming, we can't have that timeline."

Local officials are touting the national implications of the bridge to officials in the other states that have Interstates 71 and 75 running through them. They say asking those states for help could make a difference in the next month, something Bunning says he has begun in the Senate.

"We feel that we have a solid base of agreement on both sides of the river, and we'll be working with our delegations for ways to branch out to other states," said Gary Toebben, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is leading next week's trip.

Such a multi-state coalition, which could include legislators from Michigan to Florida, could help in what looks to be an extremely political process. The only way to get money set aside for a specific project in the transportation bill is through an "earmark," and those are only done in conference committees between the House and Senate.

So those seeking a new bridge need to either have someone on their side in that conference, expected to take place in the next month, or to convince another legislator to carry their cause into the conference.

One such conferee could be Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a member of the committee that oversees transportation funding.

"The senator certainly believes that the bridge is an important need, and he supports replacing it," Voinovich spokeswoman Marcie Ridgeway said Friday.

There might be less money this time around. The Senate is asking for $255 billion over six years in its version of the bill, while the House is seeking just under $300 billion. The White House wants only $200 billion, and President Bush has indicated that he might veto any increase to the federal gasoline tax that pays for most highway projects.

But Bunning said there is little chance that the Brent Spence will be left out.

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E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

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