U.S. Senate supports amendment by Sen. Rob Portman that could funnel money to Brent Spence Bridge

CINCINNATI - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved an amendment to a federal appropriations bill that could help funnel money to the Brent Spence Bridge replacement project.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, offered the amendment Wednesday to the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill to make bridges like the Brent Spence Bridge the focus of new federal budget funding. It would make bridges that are functionally obsolete or structurally deficient a priority for the allocation of $500 million in federal money being budgeted for the repair of "bridges in critical corridors" nationwide.

"Let's be sure we target the limited resources we have to target our bridges that are outdated and often at risk," Portman said on the Senate floor. "These are bridges with problems that if left unaddressed could be tomorrow's headlines."

The measure passed on the floor with a voice vote.

Replacing the Brent Spence Bridge is expected to cost an estimated $2.7 billion. Portman noted during his remarks Wednesday that the nearly 50-year-old bridge was built to accommodate 80,000 vehicles per day and now carries more than twice that many. Its lanes have been narrowed to 11 feet wide, and emergency lanes have been removed to try to help the span's congestion, he pointed out, adding that those changes also make the bridge more dangerous.

"We need to ensure that bridges like the Brent Spence on our nation's highway system receive the federal funding," he said.

He told reporters during a conference call he's optimistic the language will make it into the federal government's final budget. While that wouldn't guarantee money for the Brent Spence project, it would improve the odds since the $500 million allocated in the appropriations bill could be used for only about 25 percent of the nation's "bridges in critical corridors," he said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., co-sponsored the amendment.

The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and OKI Regional Council of Governments on Wednesday afternoon issued a statement supporting the amendment and commending Portman for his work.

But one of the key Greater Cincinnati leaders working on the Brent Spence replacement project warned that the federal government can't be expected to pay the total cost of the new span.

"Our region needs to thank Sen. Portman for trying to find new ways to drive funding to the Brent Spence Bridge. This is a great thing the senator has done," said Mark Policinski, the CEO of OKI, the region's primary transportation planning agency.

But, he said, the region has to realize that the federal government is "broke" and doesn't have the money to fund all of – or even the bulk of – the project's cost.

"We have to get as much money as we can. We have to fight like hell," he said. "But at the end of the day, we have to admit to ourselves we can't wait years and years for the federal government to ride a white horse and give us the money for the Brent Spence Bridge."

Added Policinski: "We've got to be realistic and honest and say we have to solve this problem at the state and regional level."

Locally, there's been lots of talk about tolls to help fund the bridge project. And a  meeting discussing toll possibilities to pay for the project became heated in Northern Kentucky earlier this month.

Policinski said tolls certainly aren't the only option, but they should be on the table as state and regional leaders work to find a way to replace the Brent Spence as quickly as possible.

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