By James Pilcher
Enquirer staff writer
WASHINGTON - When Ohio's transportation chief needs to call Sen. George Voinovich about roads or bridges, he'd better know his stuff.
"He still gets our newsletter and reads it and will quiz me on it," says Ohio Department of Transportation Director Gordon Proctor. "He is truly engaged in transportation."
But the former governor's devotion to the topic has placed the Cleveland Republican in a potentially sticky political position.
In the midst of an election year not only for himself but also for the leader of his party, Voinovich is leading one faction of a GOP family feud over transportation funding. His argument: More transportation money means more jobs and fewer highway fatalities.
On the other side is the White House, which is trying to limit that spending by saying the Senate bill is too big and that government spending has gotten out of control.
Yet Voinovich has a strong pulpit from which to preach.
As one of 70 members of a conference committee trying to write a final version of the funding bill, Voinovich will have a say in how much highway funding states will get over the next six years.
In the balance are such projects as Brent Spence Bridge.
Voinovich has become one of the leading advocates for replacing the bridge, even though it is owned by Kentucky.
He has even taken to using the bridge as an example of why the nation needs an infusion of more highway dollars immediately.
Local leaders have hinged their hopes on the transportation bill for the speediest replacement of the aging and hazardous Brent Spence - which hauls Interstates 71 and 75 across the Ohio River. The early price tag is $750 million.
"I can unequivocally say that this is not pork. This is a jobs bill," says Voinovich, 67, the only first-term senator on the conference panel, which started work this month.
"You mean to tell me that the Brent Spence Bridge, with all its problems, is pork? I would argue that the country is desperate for this infrastructure improvement, which is long overdue."
The conference committee has met once and another meeting is scheduled today.
But there's already talk of extending the present law to beyond the election.
That idea raises Voinovich's ire.
"If we don't get it done soon, then we're cutting into states' construction schedules, and that means things don't get built," the senator says. "But ... I would rather put a hold on this for a year than not do the right thing" now.
Taking on Bush again
Facing up to the White House is nothing new to Voinovich.
Last year, he led a small but vocal faction of the GOP against the size and breadth of the president's tax-cut plan, saying it would only expand the deficit.
The fight got fairly testy, with President Bush flying to Ohio to plead his case. Yet Bush gave in to the cut that Voinovich and others wanted, which was $200 billion less than what the House passed and the White House sought.
On the surface, Voinovich's push to curb the tax cut might not jibe with his call for more transportation spending.
Yet the senator says the two perfectly demonstrate his position as a "deficit hawk."
"I'm all about making sure we can pay for what we spend, and our bill pays for itself," he says.
"Besides, transportation is one of the true functions of government, and where we need to be spending the money."
The Senate bill that Voinovich advocates calls for $318 billion over six years; the House is asking for $275 billion.
But the White House wants $256 billion - and administration officials have said the president stands ready to veto any version that comes in much higher.
"Our version is still a 21 percent increase over the previous law, and is the largest transportation bill in history and it should be enough," says Martin T. Whitmer Jr., deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Transportation Department.
Voinovich sharply disagrees.
"The Federal Highway Administration says that we need $109 billion a year over the next 20 years just to maintain our current system and bring it up to needed capacity," he says, face flushing and hands waving. "There is a large void there."
'He's like granite'
Youngstown State University political science professor Bill Binning is not surprised Voinovich finds himself in this situation.
"He certainly recognizes the value of infrastructure for economic development," Binning says. "He was like that as governor. This is an area of public policy where he is a big believer.
"And while he does not look for fights, once he makes up his mind, he's like granite and will not move."
Indeed, Voinovich has been involved with major Cincinnati projects before - helping land money for the $328 million Fort Washington Way reconstruction.
Even those in the GOP who are opposed to his position say his stand on highway funding is no election-year conversion.
"There is no doubt that he has supported higher spending across the board his entire career, so I do not doubt his sincerity," says Chris Finney, a Hyde Park lawyer and regional GOP operative who is one of the founders of a local anti-tax group, Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes.
State Sen. Eric Fingerhut, Voinovich's opponent this fall, agrees with the senator's stance.
But he says the highway bill should never have gotten to a showdown with the White House.
"This should be a slam dunk, but he did not put the infrastructure needs of the state first when he voted for eliminating the estate tax and voting for other massive tax cuts," says Fingerhut, D-Cleveland.
"It's like the family that decided to spend its money on vacation while the roof is leaking and then realizing it needs more money."
Seeking McConnell's help
Voinovich admits he is spending political capital on a fight against the White House and for the Brent Spence project. Last year, he waved a picture of the bridge at rush hour during a committee meeting, saying it was a perfect example of why the nation needed more highway funds.
He wants U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority whip, to help out as a member of the conference committee.
But McConnell is from Louisville, which wants money for its own interstate bridge project. When asked publicly about the Brent Spence twice in the past two months, McConnell has declined comment.
The Brent Spence is "technically a Kentucky deal, but what is good for Northern Kentucky is good for Cincinnati," Voinovich says.
Gary Toebben, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which has led the push for the bridge, welcomes the help.
"We're definitely glad he's on our side," Toebben says.
How the debate will turn out for major national projects like the Brent Spence is unclear.
Voinovich acknowledges if the issue drags on past Nov. 2, it will remain divisive in his party - so he uses a GOP icon to press his case.
"Heck, even Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax," he says.
"We're not even talking about that here. ... I am committed to doing what I feel is right, and I feel that I am right on this issue."
Voinovich battles for roads
Wrecked cycle, six-foot cross warn mourners
14 years old, 2 murder charges
Cameras give kids a new view
IN THE TRISTATE
Police hold hair stylist's boyfriend
Beaten 8-year-old slightly improved
City Hall changes - times 5
Clinton's tome slow out of gate
Judge calls for Warren prosecutor to resign
Voters positive; Kings ups levy
Parents of Reservist meet privately with Bush
Carina nine years gone; dad says system failed
Public Safety briefs
Symmes rejected as YMCA partner
Taft says tech issue might return
16-year-old dazed after wreck kills her cousin
Center's 1st reading low-key
Teen volunteers help at library
Louis Voelker was long-time fire chief in Deer Park
'I've opened some doors'
VP Cheney to speak for Davis
Priest pleads guilty to molesting boy, 14
Club Chef bringing 350 jobs
City may raise tickets, fees
Ky. man faces 44 years in kidnapping