President Obama on Thursday visited the outdated Brent Spence Bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky over the Ohio River, using the occasion to urge Congress to pass his jobs bill and ignite a chain reaction of employment for construction workers and better infrastructure to support the nation’s commerce.
“There’s no reason to stand in the way of more jobs,” Obama said. “Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge."
If only it were that easy.
Obama’s choice of location probably has more to do with the bridge’s position between the states of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, than it does with the “shovel readiness” of the project.
The Brent Spence Bridge won’t be ready for a shovel—or a crane for that matter—until 2015, and that’s pending federal approval. The Kentucky and Ohio transportation departments have proposed a plan that would build a bridge downstream, widen the current lanes, and reconstruct the geometrically challenging ramps that make the span a choke point for traffic along the I-71 and I-74 corridors.
Like many of its scale, the project is stuck in limbo until Congress agrees on how to reauthorize the surface-transportation bill. The current extension is set to expire in six months, and it is unclear whether Congress can agree to terms of a reauthorization in time. Stefan Spinosa, Ohio Transportation Department's project manager for the Brent Spence Bridge, said he welcomes the president’s attention, but added that it misses the point of what's happening in Congress.
“A big concern on how we move this project forward is not just the American Jobs Act but the normal federal transportation bill,” Spinosa said.
Ohio and Kentucky together will have to raise an estimated $2.2 billion between state and federal funding to pay for the project. So far, only $51 million has been slotted.
A lack of federal money hasn’t shortened the departments' checklist of federal requirements. From the project’s birth in 2004, the bridge has been reviewed by two comprehensive studies and is now in the process of gaining clearance from the Environmental Protection Agency. From there, Spinosa’s team will begin a public-hearing process, allowing the public 30 days to comment on the proposed plans.
Then comes the waiting game. Construction is set to begin in 2015 but could hit an impasse if either Kentucky or Ohio fails to allocate the state share of the funds. Ohio’s total transportation budget currently sits at $1.5 billion annually, federal funds included, and its share of the Brent Spence Bridge will cost $930 million.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, represents the district where Obama is speaking. He and Rep. Geoff Davis, a Republican from the Kentucky side of the river, urged Congress in a Sept. 2 letter to rework the surface-transportation bill in a way that prioritized money to the “most needed projects,” the Brent Spence Bridge being one of them.
Obama used the same argument of prioritizing projects when he stumped for the creation of an infrastructure bank, included in his jobs bill, but Chabot doesn’t see their approaches aligning.
“The proposed infrastructure bank is just another term for stimulus,” said a spokesman for Chabot shortly before the president’s speech. “What we need is a long-term national infrastructure and transportation plan that weighs transportation projects based on their merits.”
The White House may argue that the infrastructure bank will do just that, but, according to Chabot’s spokesman and many Republicans who will likely vote down the president’s plan, the bank is just another Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae that will allow the federal government to arbitrarily pick “winners and losers.”
The tension in Washington—and Columbus and Frankfurt, for that matter--is palpable in Cincinnati, where Spinosa must wait for the chips to fall.
“The climate in the federal end and the state end is very different than when we started,” Spinosa said.
He can only hope that the weight and attention of the American Jobs Act does not overshadow the need to reauthorize the transportation funds he accounted for when the Ohio Transportation Department began drawing up plans in 2004.