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Obama’s Bridge to Nowhere
The president promotes his jobs bill with a project that is not shovel-ready.


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Andrew Stiles

In an effort to highlight the need for the American Jobs Act, which would provide billions in new infrastructure funding, the president will deliver a speech within sight of a “functionally obsolete” bridge on the Ohio River.

Though the president disavowed “political grandstanding” in an address to Congress earlier this month, even the communications staff at the White House could not deny the political motives behind the visit. “This was on a long list, but it was notable because it connects . . . Ohio and Kentucky,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Tuesday, referring to the home states of House speaker John Boehner (R.) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R.) respectively. “It says a lot that the bridge that would connect the states of two such powerful leaders would be considered functionally obsolete.”

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But in this case, even the president’s political grandstanding isn’t very well thought out.

The bridge in question is the Brent Spence Bridge, a 48-year-old structure spanning the Ohio River. It lies on a critical commercial route, carrying an average of 172,000 vehicles each day, more than double the number it was designed to carry.

In his address to Congress earlier this month, President Obama singled out the bridge as example of one that “needs repair.” White House press secretary Jay Carney echoed this line last week. “It’s pretty clear that this bridge could benefit from a little repair and renovation,” he told reporters. But local authorities are already on the case. They have been working for nearly a decade on a plan to replace the bridge with an entirely new structure, part of a broader initiative to alleviate vehicle congestion in the area.

Pfeiffer told the Enquirer that passing the president’s jobs bill would put unemployed construction workers to work right away on infrastructure projects across Ohio and Kentucky. The term “shovel-ready” comes to mind. However, there is nothing “shovel-ready” about the Brent Spence Bridge. Analysis on the project began only recently, and the Federal Highway Administration has yet to open the issue to public comment. Even if all the necessary funding were in place (which it’s not), the FHWA estimates, the earliest possible start date for construction on the project would be 2015, with a completion date in 2022.

Part of the reason is that various noise and environmental studies are still being conducted to ensure that the project is in compliance with state and federal regulations. According to a 2004 agreement between Ohio and Kentucky, the “environmental phase” of the Brent Spence Bridge project was estimated to cost $18 million.

As for the funding, the project carries a price tag of $2.4 billion. Under a typical arrangement, the federal government provides 80 percent of the funding, with state and local governments pitching in the rest. In this case, the feds would provide $1.9 billion, with state and local governments on the hook for $500 million. So far, only about $90 million of the state and local share has been allocated. And again, even if all that funding were to be released tomorrow, actual construction wouldn’t begin for at least another four years.

President Obama himself admitted that one of the flaws of the stimulus package was the fact that “shovel-ready wasn’t as shovel-ready as we expected.” And yet here he is touting efforts like the Brent Spence Bridge replacement as an example of an infrastructure project that could “put people to work right now” and get the economy growing again. Can Obama really blame members of Congress, including a number of Democrats, for being a bit skeptical this time around?

The first stimulus plan included $51.9 billion for “transportation” and “infrastructure” programs. Of that tidy sum, the Brent Spence Bridge received exactly $0, despite having already been declared “functionally obsolete.” Given the president’s professed concern for the bridge’s health, surely this omission was an egregious oversight.

There is no “Brent Spence Bridge Clause” in the American Jobs Act, so despite what the White House would have the citizens of Ohio and Kentucky believe, passing the president’s bill would not guarantee federal funding for the project, much less speed up the construction timeline. Either way, because the project won’t be ready to break ground for another several years, it would be a rather ill-advised investment to make in the name of economic “stimulus.”

“The only thing that can stop [the American Jobs Act from passing] is politics and our hope is that everyone is willing to put country before party to get something done,” Pfeiffer said. That the president would ignore his own advice and embrace political grandstanding should come as no surprise. But who knew he’d be so inept at it?

— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.



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