By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, wants $15 million for the Brent Spence Bridge project. If approved, the money would be the largest chunk set aside yet for the replacement of the 40-year-old span that carries Interstates 71 and 75 between Cincinnati and Covington.
Voinovich is trying to get money for preliminary engineering and design specifically assigned in the yearly budget, thus bypassing an ongoing Capitol Hill fight over transportation spending.
Voinovich, Ohio's former governor, sent a letter last week to the chairman of a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., seeking the money.
"A safe and reliable Ohio River crossing at this location is critical to the economy of this region and beyond," Voinovich wrote.
The bridge needs to be fixed because some estimates give the Brent Spence only 15 more years of structural life if nothing is done, while it has an accident rate five times higher than the entire interstate systems of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Replacing it could cost $750 million or more.
Normally, funds for such a project would come from the six-year law that authorizes major transportation spending, which is now bottlenecked in Congress.
Voinovich's spokeswoman Marcie Ridgway said Wednesday that the request, or "earmark," was a "safety net" in case the authorization process fails to secure money for the bridge, although she declined to speculate on the chances of it surviving in this fall's budget.
Even though the bridge is owned and would be replaced by Kentucky, business and political leaders from throughout Greater Cincinnati have been pushing for a replacement for at least two years.
The new strategy comes after another round of lobbying, this time by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, which visited Washington last week.
Voinovich had been committed to the Brent Spence long before that visit, using it as an example during a hearing last year for the need for more highway funding.
"He is actually one step ahead of us by thinking of 'what if' scenarios, and we certainly appreciate his leadership," said Gary Toebben, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber, which initiated the replacement effort.
The request by Voinovich comes as the six-year bill is stymied because of a fight between Congress and the White House over how much should be spent.
The House calls for $275 billion over six years, while the Senate seeks $315 billion over the same period.
The House version includes just $2 million for the bridge; the Senate version makes no mention of the project.
The Bush administration wants $256 billion, and White House officials have repeatedly threatened a veto if the amount gets too high for their liking.
A disagreement on forming a conference committee, which would reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions, also is delaying the bill.
Voinovich, a member of the Senate's transportation subcommittee, is a possible candidate for that yet-to-be-selected conference committee.
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