Saturday, May 22, 2004

Senators named highway conferees

Voinovich and McConnell join

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ohio and Kentucky, which are connected by the Brent Spence Bridge, now have something else in common. Senators from each state will have a say in the final drafting of a transportation funding bill that could help pay to replace the bridge.

George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Friday were named to the conference committee that will resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill that authorizes transportation funding for six years.

The old version expired last fall, but has been extended twice due to partisan politics and disagreements between Congress and the White House, which wants lower spending.

McConnell is the Senate's majority whip, while Voinovich has been vocal about the transportation bill impasse.

"The delays we've seen so far with the highway bill can't continue," said Voinovich, the former mayor of Cleveland, in a statement. "I've pushed hard for Ohio to get its fair share of federal highway funds and to increase the rate of return on our gas tax money. I'm going to continue to push hard for that in conference negotiations."

Ohio currently gets 88 cents back for every dollar it puts into the federal highway fund, paid for by federal gas excise taxes.

Voinovich also said he will push hard for funding for the Brent Spence Bridge, the main interstate connection between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, even though it is a Kentucky project. Local officials have been pushing for two years to replace the 40-year old bridge, which has been documented as a safety hazard and may have less than 15 years of structural life left.

Those officials say that if they do not get money authorized for the estimated $750 million project in this bill, the region may have to wait another six years - putting even more stress on the bridge.

McConnell's spokeswoman, Julie Adams, said that he is "looking forward to being a conferee." She would not discuss specifics because she said McConnell was traveling. In a February meeting with area business officials, McConnell deferred comment on the status of the Brent Spence to other senators.

The conference committee includes 21 senators (11 Republicans, nine Democrats and independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont) and is set to begin work on the bill next week. The House has yet to name its members to the committee.

Voinovich said the new committee hopes to finish a version for President Bush to sign by June 30, when the current extension of the old law expires.

The House version calls for $275 billion in spending over six years, while the Senate seeks $315 billion over the same period.

The House version includes just $2 million for the Brent Spence; 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.


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