Troubled Ohio River Bridges in Spotlight

Kentucky has big bridge problems. Cracks have closed the Sherman Minton Bridge in Louisville, which bears the weight of Interstate-64. Democrat Ben Chandler says it’s crippling daily commutes.  “The situation in Louisville is particularly troubling at the moment because one of the bridges has gone out recently and they have terrible traffic jams in Louisville right now,” said Chandler.  The Louisville Bridge is one of several Ohio River bridges causing trouble in the Commonwealth.  Loads on the Ironton-Russell Bridge in northeast Kentucky have been restricted.  Earlier this year, work crews in western Kentucky found a hole in a deck on the Owensboro Bridge.

And the span that carries Interstate-75 into Cincinnati has attracted the national attention.  President Obama will highlight the antiquated Brent Spence Bridge during a visit to the political battle ground state of Ohio. The White House says the jobs act would invest nearly half a billion dollars in bridge and road projects in Kentucky. Republicans admit federal money is needed to fix the state’s ailing infrastructure.

“It’s a terrible situation,” said Republican Hal Rogers also chairs the House committee that doles out federal cash.

To Rogers and many other members of the GOP, the president’s plan sounds a lot like the stimulus package they opposed in 2009. Rogers says he doesn’t think a separate infrastructure bill is necessary.

“We need to pass in regular order a highway bill for the whole country. I mean, the whole country’s infrastructure is deteriorating. So time is running out,” said Rogers.

The House and Senate have agreed to extend the federal highway spending program through next March, but a partisan debate on long term spending levels still rages on Capitol Hill. As the president calls for extra money, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul says more deficit spending isn’t the answer.

“I think we should repair and replace our worn out infrastructure and we should do it in the context of a balanced budget,” said Paul.

Democrats, such as Louisville’s John Yarmuth, are getting behind the president and says extra money for bridges is needed now.

“Well, I think what’s happened in Louisville with the closing of the Sherman Minton Bridge is the case and point for the President’s reference to deteriorating infrastructure and the need to spend more,” said Yarmuth.

With more than nine percent of Kentuckians currently out of work, Congressman Chandler says the proposal is a win-win for the Commonwealth.

“I think now is the best time to do it. It would create jobs that cannot be exported, good Kentucky jobs. I think we need to do it. I think the most important problem that faces this country today is unemployment and we need to put our people in the commonwealth of Kentucky to work,” said Chandler.

A bridge closure is also more than just a headache for commuters. It slows commerce and has a broad economic impact.  So, Yarmuth argues there’s more to this debate than the creation of construction jobs.

“It’s also a way you preserve jobs because if our infrastructure breaks down then you’re endangering an awful lot of jobs and an awful lot of economic activity,” said Yarmuth.

Republicans who control one chamber of Congress say they were elected to slash the federal deficit, which means they don’t want to spend more money without making spending cuts somewhere else. In a time of austerity, Senator Paul says lawmakers must get serious about prioritizing the federal budget.

“What we should do up here is make priorities and if a bridge is crumbling, which there is one in northern Kentucky, get the money for it but take the money from somewhere else,” said Paul.

Republican leaders say they don’t even want a vote on the president’s jobs act. That isn’t stopping the president, who’s travelling the nation, building support for his plan. Whether his address on the Commonwealth’s northernmost border will generate such support remains to be seen. But Kentucky lawmakers will be listening.