By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A possible source has been found for $750 million to fix or replace the Brent Spence Bridge.
Officials with Greater Cincinnati's main transportation planning agency say their meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House over the past week have uncovered a $20.2 billion fund for "projects of regional and national importance."
They are confident the fund - part of the House version of a transportation bill Congress is debating - could survive a political fight over highway funding. If the bridge doesn't make it into the bill working its way through Congress, the region would have to wait six years for the money.
Getting money for the bridge from this fund potentially isn't as tricky as getting the project inserted or "earmarked" when congressional negotiators sit down to reconcile House and Senate versions of the bill.
Local and state officials have been pushing for a replacement to the 40-year-old bridge for almost two years, saying that it is overcrowded and unsafe. Some estimates show the bridge has less than 15 years of structural integrity left if nothing is done.
"Our goal when we got here was to expand the Brent Spence project beyond our own region, and I think we got there," Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, said Tuesday from Washington after several meetings with legislators and at the White House. "And we found out about this fund last week, and are now very confident that it will last."
Regional officials worked to stress that the bridge is a national issue because it carries Interstates 71 and 75 - both major national truck routes - between Ohio and Kentucky, which owns and maintains the bridge.
Policinski, whose agency funnels all federal transportation dollars for the region, said an application to tap into the fund has yet to be turned in, although one will be as soon as possible.
OKI Vice President and Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore said, "It is very encouraging to have another possible funding source for the Brent Spence, especially since it is such a large-ticket item."
The extension to the current funding law expires Sunday. Many expect Congress to extend the law for another four months as differences between the two congressional versions and the White House's can be worked out.
The Senate plan calls for $318 billion over six years, but does not include such a fund for regional/national projects. The House seeks $375 billion, and some representatives have discussed raising the federal gas tax to help pay for the increase. But the White House version is just $256 billion over six years - and the Bush administration has threatened a veto of any proposal that includes a tax hike.
Policinski and several OKI board members met with White House officials Tuesday, with Policinski saying that the bridge project received a sympathetic ear.
"We are looking for a different overall spending amount than they are, but they were very clear that this is the kind of project that President Bush can support," he said. "They said that they would support this project as much as they could ... because they realize it has such drastic national impact."
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