Friday, April 2, 2004

Local roads kicked to the curb


Area lawmakers miss chances to bring home bacon

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - If Greater Cincinnati drivers wonder why their local projects don't get more money in the giant highway bill expected to be approved today, the reason is very logical - and it has nothing to do with crowded roads or rickety bridges.

The wrong committee assignments, a retirement decision and a stand on principles cost Greater Cincinnati at least $50 million in highway projects.

Members of the committee that wrote the bill gave themselves millions of extra dollars for road projects. But no one from Tristate delegations sits on the committee.

Democrats in the House gave their endangered incumbents millions in extra projects. But Rep. Ken Lucas, the Northern Kentucky Democrat, is not running for re-election.

And Rep. John Boehner, R-West Chester, turned down $14 million in local projects each member was awarded because he opposes pork on principle.

Mike Pence, the Republican who represents northern Dearborn County, criticized the committee chairman - and found his $14 million trimmed to $8 million.

"That's politics. This is making sausage. This is how legislation is done," said Mark R. Policinski, a former Capitol Hill staffer and now executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. He said the bill is "a good beginning."

Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken - who was a member of Congress when an earlier highway bill was written in the same way - said the situation stinks.

"I thought it stunk then, and it stinks now. That's the way it goes. It's never been fair. We have to deal with what we have and be grateful," he said.

Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, said Thursday he wished the money were spread out more evenly or based on local needs rather than a congressman's position or seniority.

"After all, it's the taxpayer's money. Everybody pays gas taxes." He said he probably would vote for the bill, which includes a provision he added that helps Ohio by changing ethanol tax rules.

The highway bill taken up Thursday in the House includes more than 2,800 local highway projects across the nation that lawmakers added.

Depending on what survives in the final version, Greater Cincinnati drivers will get better roads in the Eastgate area, at Hamilton Avenue and Interstate 275, near Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and a dozen other places.

Most members of Congress were given $14 million in projects. But others got more.

Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which wrote the bill, got at least $40 million each.

By virtue of being a member of the transportation committee and chairman of another committee, Republican Rep. Bob Ney of St. Clairsville was able to haul in $55 million for his rural central Ohio district - more than Greater Cincinnati landed.

A study out Thursday by the Environmental Working Group showed that in the previous highway bill, the Cincinnati metropolitan area got back only 82 cents for every dollar paid in gas taxes. Dayton and Cleveland fared about as well. But rural areas got back $1.02 for every dollar in gas taxes.

Vulnerable Democrats were given a $10 million bonus on top of their $14 million.

That meant Rep. Baron Hill, a Seymour, Ind., Democrat who faces a tough re-election rematch against Republican Mike Sodrel, got $24 million. However, none of it landed in Dearborn County in his district.

Lucas would have gotten another $10 million if he were running, because his seat was considered one of the most endangered.

Greater Cincinnati also lost out on $14 million when Boehner declined to participate.

The Ohio Department of Transportation, not members of Congress, should be deciding where to spend road money, he said Thursday. When Congress adds its own highway projects, he contends, they short-circuit all the state's planning.

In most cases projects got less funding than earlier requested; a few projects didn't get funded at all:

• So $25 million to widen Red Bank Road became $4.1 million.

• And $22 million for Eastgate area improvements became $4.1 million, too.

• And $15 million to study improvements to three new interchanges along I-75 became $2 million to study just one, at I-74.

• Funding for a new interchange at I-75 and Ohio 122 in northern Warren County didn't make it into the bill.

"Given the budget situation, I think it's good to have these projects," said Brian Griffith, spokesman for GOP Rep. Steve Chabot of Westwood. "There's a limited pool of money available."

The House originally had planned a $375 billion bill. But President Bush threatened to veto that as too expensive. So the House opted for a $275 billion bill - and even that may be vetoed, the White House says.

No project got whacked as much as the Brent Spence Bridge. Instead of $502 million, Lucas, a Union Democrat, announced $7 million.

But Policinski said the important thing with Brent Spence, as with the other projects, is that they are mentioned in the bill at all.

"That's great. Thank you, we'll take it. We're in the bill," he said. Because another highway bill won't be written for six years, had there been no mention of the bridge or other local projects, "You are out. You're on the sidelines."

The money might be increased in a joint House-Senate conference that will follow. The Tristate's Senate delegation includes the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Louisville, and Sen. George Voinovich of Cleveland, who serves on the Senate committee that wrote that highway bill. The Senate bill, unlike the House bill, did not include local projects.

Email cweiser@gannett.com. Contributing: Maureen Groppe, Gannett New Service.




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