Saturday, March 6, 2004

Stop stalling mega highway bill


The pile-up in Washington over delivering a new six-year highway funding bill threatens Cincinnati-area projects including a new Brent Spence Bridge. Multibillion-dollar gaps divide the House, Senate and President Bush on the mother of all pork bills, and now congressional leaders are rumored to be about to head for the exit ramp and approve only a two-year extension, likely to hold highway spending at roughly current levels.

A long-term transportation bill already is way overdue, and further delay only will set back hundreds of road construction projects in Ohio, Kentucky and other states. A presidential election year is no excuse. Congress ought to keep bumping heads until it settles on a long-term funding deal that can withstand scrutiny by Bush and voters.

The House, Senate and Bush are all over the map on total spending. The Senate passed a $318 billion bill; the House is looking at $356 billion. Bush wants it held to $256 billion and has vowed to veto any bill that includes higher gasoline taxes, which pay for road projects.

A short delay, at first glance, might seem to favor the $750 million project to replace the 40-year-old Brent Spence span, a regional and national chokepoint for Interstates 75 and 71. An extension would give leaders here more time to lobby Washington and buy time for a two-year, $2.2 million federally funded study to nail down exactly what sort of bridge or bridges are needed.

But highway planners need years and some minimal certainty about funding to produce a workable design. An Ohio River bridge project like the Brent Spence can take 10 years to plan and build. Kentucky owns the bridge and is responsible for overseeing its replacement, but Ohio also expects to spend at least $250 million on its side of the river for new approaches. Neither Kentucky nor Ohio officials welcome any lengthy delay in a six-year federal highway bill. A two-year extension not only would make design studies iffier and could require starting over when a final bill does pass, but an extension at current spending levels would jeopardize other road projects throughout our region.

It would slow plans to upgrade I-75 in Ohio, U.S. 42 in Kentucky and the I-275 Eastern Corridor. "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," said Ohio Department of Transportation Director Gordon Proctor. Projects in both states might have to be downsized or killed.

Bush, facing a tough election challenge, understandably views a gas tax increase or larger deficits as poison. The easy way out is not an embarrassing veto but kicking this mega-pork bill into next year. But members of Congress need to remember that voters stuck in gridlock or orange-barrel zones are not likely to be soothed by the promise of relief years from now. Put the pedal to the metal and produce a long-term bill this year.

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