Saturday, February 21, 2004

McConnell: Transit bill near

Senator defers on whether funding will include Brent Spence

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CRESCENT SPRINGS - U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, one of the most powerful members of the Republican congressional leadership in Washington, said Friday that he anticipates that Congress will finish a six-year transportation funding bill within the next few weeks.

But when asked whether he thought that bill would include money for replacing the Brent Spence Bridge, McConnell took a pass, referring comment to fellow Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Southgate.

"Jim has been taking the lead on that, and I'll let him talk about it," said McConnell, the majority whip and senior senator from the state.

If money for the bridge isn't in this bill, the project will have to wait six years for funding.

McConnell said there will be final resolution soon, but "what kind of size or shape it takes is still unclear."

McConnell made his comments after a visit to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, rescheduling a meeting that was supposed to take place in Washington earlier this month but was canceled by the Capitol ricin contamination scare.

The chamber has led the push for replacing the 40-year-old Brent Spence, which is considered "functionally obsolete" by federal standards and could be wearing out structurally by some estimates. Preliminary estimates for replacing the bridge are $750 million.

What McConnell's nonposition on the bridge could mean for the process is unknown, especially because he is involved in a charged political situation over the transportation funding law that he says has created schisms among Republicans.

The extension to the law expires Feb. 29. The Senate passed its six-year version last week, calling for $318 billion in funding but no increase in the gas tax.

McConnell was the only senator from Ohio or Kentucky to vote against the bill, as he was in favor of the White House's $256 billion proposal.

In the House, a $375 billion version is scheduled to come up for a vote next week in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Neither the House nor Senate version of the funding bill currently contains anything for a bridge to replace the Brent Spence.

But Bunning has repeatedly stressed that he is confident that at least some money for a replacement bridge will be in the bill when it hits the final negotiations.

Carl Weiser contributed to this report. E-mail

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