Friday, April 23, 2004

Plea made for new I-75 bridge

D.C. official here, discusses funding

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

AVONDALE - A White House official visiting here renewed the threat that President Bush could veto any transportation funding bill that the president thinks costs too much. But what a veto could mean for a Brent Spence Bridge replacement isn't clear, Ruben Barrales said Thursday.

The White House wants to spend $256 billion, but that's well below what either the House or Senate want. Unless money for the bridge is included in the current bill, the replacement project could be delayed six years until the next round of funding.

"We are very much aware of the bridge and its problems," said Barrales, the White House's director of intergovernmental affairs and deputy assistant to the president. Local officials took Barrales on a tour of the 40-year-old interstate span during the morning rush hour.

"There are some who would make the argument that $256 billion is not enough for transportation needs for this country, but that is still a whole lot of money and a substantial increase over what we had been paying," Barrales said. "As for the bridge, it could get covered under a special fund or not make it into the ultimate package. We still have to wait and see what happens out of the conference committee."

Barrales, the White House's top liaison with local and regional political officials, made the comments at the annual meeting of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens.

OKI, the region's main transportation planning agency, and other local agencies and business leaders have been pushing for at least two years for the replacement of the Brent Spence.

The bridge carries Interstates 71 and 75 across the Ohio River between downtown Cincinnati and Covington.

The bridge handles nearly 155,000 vehicles a day, well over its design capacity of 120,000 daily vehicles. Some estimates say the bridge has only 10 to 15 years of structural life left if nothing is done. Its accident rate is five times higher than the interstate systems of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana combined.

Preliminary estimates from Kentucky highway officials call for $750 million to replace the bridge. (Kentucky owns and maintains all spans across the Ohio.)

Only $2 million is allocated to replace the bridge in the House's $275 billion version of the six-year transportation funding authorization bill now being finalized between the House and Senate. The Brent Spence is not mentioned in the Senate's $315 billion version.

Members of the local congressional delegation, most notably Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., have said that substantial funding for the Brent Spence would come in conference - when the two houses resolve differences in their respective bills. But a conference committee has yet to be named.

Barrales said that the chances are "very good" for the president to veto any transportation funding bill that raises the federal gas excise tax, uses what he called "creative financing or bonding" to pay for projects, or uses money from outside the highway trust fund.

The Senate's version includes some bonding initiatives.


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