Shovel-ready politics

Rick Robinson Author, Writ of Mandamus
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The national debate on the next generation of stimulus came to my backyard today as President Barack Obama held a political rally in my community to push for passage of his jobs package and used the replacement of an aging interstate bridge as his background visual.

Linking Florida to Michigan, Interstate 75 is one of the busiest roads in America. As I-75 crosses the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Kentucky, it is joined by another major north/south route, Interstate 71. The structure that cars use to cross the river is known as the Brent Spence Bridge.

In the president’s recent message to Congress, he called out the Brent Spence Bridge as one of the nation’s aging items of infrastructure in bad need of replacement. He’s right.

The Brent Spence Bridge opened in 1963 with an engineering expectation of carrying a maximum of 85,000 cars daily. The fact that it currently carries twice that amount of traffic is just one of the reasons it has been labeled functionally obsolete.

Because of its age, the Brent Spence Bridge is under constant repair. Even with the extra attention, drivers dodge new potholes on a weekly basis. Cars on the north-bound, lower deck must also be on guard for chunks of concrete falling from the underside of the upper deck.

As there are no emergency lanes on the Brent Spence Bridge, the driver of a broken-down vehicle literally takes his life in his hands. This summer, a good Samaritan stopped to offer assistance to a driver whose car had run out of gas on the bridge. A third car smashed into them both. The driver of the disabled vehicle was killed when he was tossed off the bridge into the Ohio River.

Sadly, that man was not the first person killed on the Brent Spence Bridge. He’s only the latest.

Linking more than North and South

When President Obama mentioned the Brent Spence Bridge replacement in his remarks to Congress, people in my community were ecstatic. Backed by the business community, local officials have been working on securing the funds to move the project forward. Finally, it seemed, someone was taking the initiative to secure the funds and fast-track the process.

Well, not quite.

According to an article in today’s Cincinnati Enquirer, the Brent Spence Bridge is never actually mentioned in the president’s jobs bill. In fact, when asked about fast-tracking the project, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer qualified the president’s enthusiasm by stating, “We would move it as quickly as we possibly could. But every project has to be evaluated on its merits.”

Oh, and by the way, it’s not a direct federal appropriation of funds … it’s a block of money to each state for them to determine how to spend. Of course, the states still have to come up with the 20% match required by the transportation formula. There is not a lot of loose change lying around in state budgets these days to pay for mega-projects like multi-interstate bridge replacements.

There are plenty of good reasons to have the federal government focus like a laser beam on the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge. Unfortunately, safety, efficiency and job creation are not the reasons that this project made its way onto the president’s radar screen today.

The Brent Spence Bridge links two very important politicians to the president’s latest stimulus package. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s home district in Ohio starts just a short trip up I-75 from the failing span. Boehner drives across the Brent Spence Bridge every time he comes home from D.C. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell represents the Kentucky constituents on the south side of the river.

In his speech, President Obama joked about the fact that the bridge was chosen for that exact political purpose. He got plenty of laughs from the crowd as he drew a steel and concrete line in the sand and challenged Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell to step across it.

Quite frankly, most of us who dare drive across the bridge on a daily basis aren’t amused at being used as a sight gag for a campaign one-liner.

Mr. President, if you’re serious about infrastructure …

If the president is serious about his commitment to make infrastructure a device of economic stimulus, the first thing he needs to put on a fast track is eliminating the regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of a reasonable start date.

The original Brent Spence Bridge was built in about four years. Today, it takes at least that long to do the environmental impact studies necessary to start the approval process for its replacement.

As for money, if the federal government paid for repair or replacement of every interstate bridge labeled as functionally obsolete or structurally deficient, the price tag of a direct federal appropriation would be $140 billion (far less than the $447 billion overall price tag of Stimulus III).

Do those two things, Mr. President, and the workers who attended your pep rally today might start shoveling more than a pile of political bullshit.

Rick Robinson is the author of political thrillers which can be purchased on Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. His latest novel, Manifest Destiny has won seven writing awards, including Best Fiction at the Paris Book Festival.