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'We can work together': A rare show of bipartisanship during Biden's visit to Covington

 President Joe Biden greets ironworker Sarah
Nick Swartsell
President Joe Biden greets ironworker Sarah

President Joe Biden visited the Covington, Ky., side of the Brent Spence Bridge Wednesday to announce more than $1 billion in funding to build a companion bridge there and revamp the 60-year-old span.

Much of that funding will come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Congress passed last June. That legislation sets aside $40 billion over five years for maintenance of 10 economically significant bridges — including the Brent Spence and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge — as well as another 15,000 smaller bridges across the country.

The Biden administration prioritized funding for the Brent Spence, which carries I-71 and I-75 across the Ohio River, due to its importance as a freight corridor. The Federal Highway Administration says the bridge carries $400 billion in freight a year and is the second-worst bottleneck for trucking in the country.

Biden highlighted the economic importance of the bridge and the bipartisan effort to update the corridor.

"I believe this sends an important message to the entire country," Biden said. "We can work together. We can get things done. We can move the nation forward. For decades people have talked about the Brent Spence Bridge. Folks, the talking is over. We're going to get it done."

Ironworker Saria Gwin-Maye, a 30-year veteran of the industry in Cincinnati, introduced the president.

"It's a boost for the workers and a boost for the region," she said of the project. "This brings jobs and brings money and that's very well needed today in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky."

About $1.385 billion of the federal investment in the bridge will come from the Biden administration's Large Bridge Grant Program. A separate federal Multimodal Projects Discretionary Grant (MEGA) for complex and economically significant projects will provide another $250 million.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, former U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear joined Biden at the event.

"So much of our nation's GDP relies on this crossing," Beshear said Wednesday, praising the bipartisan support the funding received. "This project has been talked about for years — decades, actually. And we're the folks who are getting it done."

Both Democratic and Republican elected officials struck a tone of partnership in remarks made in front of the Brent Spence.

"The truth is, this bridge could not be built without these federal dollars," DeWine said, applauding the president, the region's senators, Beshear and both Ohio and Kentucky transportation officials, "When this bill was passed, we were ready to go ... Let our new bridge serve as an example of how we can come together as a country to just get things done."

McConnell, often an opponent of Democratic priorities, also applauded cooperation between parties for the infrastructure funding.

"This is a day I think many people in Northern Kentucky thought might never happen," he said. "We know these are very partisan times, but no matter who gets elected, we should look for things we can agree on even when we have big differences ... When you look at the political alignment of everyone working on this, you see the government working together to solve a major problem."

Other area priorities

Members of the Biden administration are fanned out across the country announcing funding for other bridge projects. Vice President Kamala Harris is in Chicago to unveil funding for bridges crossing the Calumet River. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is in New London, Conn., at the Gold Star Memorial Bridge.

The Brent Spence project is part of a larger revamp of the corridor passing through Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Ohio and Kentucky transportation officials envision reworking an eight-mile stretch of highway on both sides of the Ohio River from the Western Hills Viaduct to just south of Dixie Highway.

The Biden administration also highlighted federal funding for the replacement of the 85-year-old Western Hills Viaduct as part of the effort to revamp the I-75 corridor for improved trucking and rail freight. That project received $127 million in federal INFRA funding in 2021 toward its replacement, which is expected to be complete in 2030.

Current Ohio Department of Transportation and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Plans have the planned secondary bridge carrying drivers on I-71 and I-75, while the current Brent Spence will carry local traffic. Before the bridge, that traffic will travel via what the Ohio Department of Transporation and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are calling a "collector-distributor" system from 12th Street in Covington to Ezzard Charles Drive in Cincinnati.

The opposition

Not everyone loves the idea. Groups have raised concerns and proposed alternative visions for the corridor. Among the latest comes from a group called Bridge Forward, which claims to have designed a lower-impact alternative solution that frees up 30 acres of land swallowed by I-75.

"Bridge Forward applauds the federal government for providing the $1.6 billion grant for the Brent Spence Bridge project," the group said in a Wednesday statement. "Now is the time to be bold. We continue to encourage federal, state and Cincinnati city officials to work together and with local community groups and leaders on a plan that will reclaim 30 acres of land and seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create developable land, reconnect the West End with downtown, enhance walkability, improve public safety and unleash new opportunities for people to live, work and play in our city and region."

Engineers constructed the Brent Spence Bridge in the 1960s to carry about 80,000 cars a day. It currently carries about twice that many a day, though overall traffic on the bridge peaked at 171,000 in 2014 and has decreased somewhat since.

The total cost of the Brent Spence Corridor project is expected to be about $3 billion. Officials say the project could be shovel-ready by the end of this year.

Copyright 2023 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Nick Swartsell

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