Friday, August 27, 2004

Brent Spence, 'an invitation to disaster,' may get funds

By James Pilcher
Enquirer staff writer

A key member of a congressional committee hammering out a long-term highway funding bill Thursday told area officials pushing for replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge they should ask only for what they will spend over the next six years.

After a tour of the nearly 41-year old bridge, Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, said the project and its estimated $750 million price tag has a good chance of getting some funding in the bill now being debated.

"It's obvious that this is an invitation to disaster," said LaTourette, a suburban Cleveland lawyer, citing the many design flaws he viewed from his seat on a loaned Metro bus as it crossed the Ohio River bridge. "But I would only ask for what you need right now, so you have a chance of getting that and you don't short-sheet other programs."

Ohio and Northern Kentucky officials have pushed for several years to replace the Brent Spence, citing congestion and safety issues. They have asked for most of the preliminary estimate for the total cost, even though construction probably couldn't start for at least eight years. One Kentucky highway official said the project would probably cost at least $100 million over the next six years.

The bridge carries Interstates 71 and 75 across the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington, and handles more than 150,000 vehicles daily, well over its design limit of 130,000. In addition, a 2000 study said the Brent Spence only had 12-15 years of structural life remaining.

LaTourette's tour and visit included a ride over another aging bridge - the Waldvogel/Sixth Street Viaduct - and briefings on other highway funding requests from the area.

He said Ohio was probably in line to get funding for at least one "mega-project" out of the transportation bill because of its position as a potential swing state in the presidential election. LaTourette also said the Brent Spence could stand a better chance to get money out of a special fund for projects of "regional or national significance," since it is owned by Kentucky.

"And if that doesn't happen and the money goes to a different Ohio project, it frees up money for this one," LaTourette said.

Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments executive director Mark Policinski, whose regional transportation planning agency organized Thursday's briefing and tour, said the visit was encouraging, especially for the Brent Spence project.

But LaTourette, a five-term congressman, was not as optimistic as to when a final bill might take shape. Breaking a stalemate between the House, Senate and the White House over funding levels, the House earlier this summer offered a bill worth $288 billion over six years - that bill includes $2 million for the Brent Spence.

The Senate is asking for $318 billion, however, and LaTourette said he thinks some senators on the conference committee may push to wait until after the November election to finish the bill for political reasons.

LaTourette said the bill will probably have to wait until early next year.


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