Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Federal official unswayed on need for more bridge money

Guided tour: Replacing Brent Spence

By James Pilcher
Enquirer staff writer

Despite a guided tour Monday of the Brent Spence Bridge, the No. 2 federal transportation official was standing pat: no more money to replace the outmoded bridge.

U.S. Transportation Department assistant secretary Emil Frankel acknowledged the need for a new bridge, saying, "It was built in a different era.

Hazards of the Bridge section

"Something has got to be done here. There's no question."

But he said the administration's proposal for a massive transportation bill, currently bogged down in Congress, was "responsible."

That was in stark contrast to the opinion of U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who invited Frankel to Cincinnati for the bridge tour.

Voinovich used the event to say again that more money is needed in the transportation bill than the White House is willing to approve.

Ohio and Kentucky officials have pinned their hopes of paying the entire cost a replacement bridge - estimated at $750 million - on the federal transportation bill. The two states are working closely together, even though Kentucky owns and maintains the bridge.

Voinovich, who is up for re-election this fall, is on a conference committee trying to come up with a final funding figure for the bill. He has repeatedly used the Brent Spence and its problems as an example of why states need more federal highway money.

"We have a real obligation here to move as quickly as we can, from a safety point of view and from a transportation point of view," Voinovich said.

The bridge carries 150,000 vehicles on Interstates 71 and 75 across the Ohio River every day.

"This is a major corridor. This is not just a bridge across from Kentucky to Ohio. This is part of the interstate system, and very, very importantly, part of the economies of not only Kentucky and Ohio but also the economies going all the way up to Michigan and down to Florida."

Bus tour

Senator George Voinovich (right) and U.S. Transportation Department undersecretary Emil Frankel made a visit to the region as Voinovich lobbied for federal funds to help in the construction of a replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
Voinovich and Frankel were joined on the hourlong tour of the bridge and the interstates by Kentucky's and Ohio's top transportation and political officials, who briefed them on congestion and safety issues.

The Brent Spence is considered "functionally obsolete" according to federal standards, meaning it does not meet design criteria for safety and traffic flow.

Replacing the bridge could take as long as 15 years, during which time traffic could hit 200,000 vehicles a day, Kentucky state highway officials said.

During the tour on a chartered Metro bus, which was escorted by Cincinnati police and Ohio state highway arrow trucks directing traffic around the bus, they also heard about the difficulties of bridge replacement, including avoiding the Cinergy power station and historically significant Longworth Hall, which both sit just west of the bridge.

Voinovich said that if the Senate version of the highway bill is passed, he could envision getting nearly $30 million for the Brent Spence for the next fiscal year, in addition to a $2.2 million feasibility study under way and $4 million more on the way for environmental studies.

Replacement could be difficult

The Senate version of the transportation bill that Voinovich endorses calls for $318 billion nationwide over six years. The House version asks for $275 billion. The White House proposal is $256 billion, and administration officials have repeatedly said President Bush stands ready to veto anything much above that.

Frankel defended the administration's figures.

"It represents the highest amount of spending ever recommended and a 20 percent increase over the existing legislation," he said.

Neither the Senate nor the White House have specific amounts for the Brent Spence in their proposals. The House version has a $7 million item.

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet deputy secretary Dick Murgatroyd said it would be tough to replace the Brent Spence if the White House's lower amounts are approved. Kentucky is already facing a funding crunch and is operating without a budget.

The conference committee meets today to continue ironing out the different proposals, but Voinovich said he is growing doubtful that agreement on a multiyear bill can be reached by the end of the year.

"Right now, it's probably less than 50-50," he said. "We're running out of time. I'm at the stage right now where if we don't get on or get off, I want to pass a one-year extension at existing levels that would at least allow states to plan for that much."

A one-year extension should not delay the Brent Spence process, he said, but any delay beyond that or reduction in funding from the Senate level could jeopardize the project.


E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

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