By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Election-year politics on Capitol Hill might create breathing room for local forces lobbying for $750 million to replace the Brent Spence Bridge, but could deal a setback to other regional transportation projects.
The proposed six-year highway bill passed the Senate at $318 billion and is under consideration at $356 billion in the House. In a bid to avoid a confrontation, the Republican leadership of the House Transportation Committee said Thursday that a two-year extension of the current legislation is being considered.
The White House wants a six-year program set at $256 billion, and President Bush has vowed to veto any bill that includes a gasoline-tax increase.
House Republican leaders say a two-year extension would provide time for negotiations on longer-term funding. Transportation Committee officials wouldn't say how a two-year bill might take shape.
The extension would buy time for Tristate interests to lobby for funding to replace the bridge, which spans the Ohio River and links Northern Kentucky to downtown Cincinnati as part of Interstate 75 and Interstate 71.
But officials fear a delay in hammering out a definitive six-year deal might slow other projects such as the Interstate 75 upgrade in Ohio, improvements to U.S. 42 in Northern Kentucky and work on the Eastern Corridor in Ohio.
"It may work well for the Brent Spence project, in that it will help us more strategically prepare for federal funding," said Mike Hancock, deputy state highway engineer for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which operates and maintains the bridge. "But when you back away and look at the entire federal funding scenario, the situation of postponing the inevitable is only detrimental to the state's ability to plan. And that leaves a lot of other things in limbo."
Area political and business leaders have pushed for more than a year for funding to replace the 40-year-old Brent Spence, arguing the bridge is unsafe and a major traffic chokepoint.
Kentucky highway officials are in the midst of a two-year, $2.2 million federally funded study on the feasibility of replacing the Brent Spence. The state is getting another $2 million this year to continue study on the bridge.
"This does put us in a position to buy some time," said Steve Stevens, senior vice president for public affairs at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which has led the charge to replace the bridge. But Stevens added that a delay in the expected six-year funding program might not be a plus for the full range of highway projects in Northern Kentucky.
The delay might not help the Brent Spence effort in the long run, either, local highway officials working on the project said. Mike Bezold, who is overseeing the project for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said any work done now might need to be redone if the law is revised in two years.
"We could be forced to go back to square one," said Bezold.
Some Kentucky projects could be at risk of delay or even downsizing, officials say.
The $25 million improvement to U.S. 42 could be delayed and even put at risk, depending on funding levels, officials said. The same goes with planned improvements to Turkeyfoot Road in Kenton County.
"We were planning on a certain increase, basing it on the conservative Senate version," Hancock said.
Ohio Transportation Director Gordon Proctor said any funding bill that keeps things the way they are over a short period would not work.
"If they extend the current version, and the key verb there is 'extend,' that would be very bad for Ohio," Proctor said. "What that would force us to do is spend a great deal of money on engineering without knowing when we could start construction on many of these projects or to what level we can build."
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