CINCINNATI — Early one November morning last year, a tractor-trailer hauling potassium hydroxide crashed into another truck that had jackknifed on the Brent Spence Bridge, igniting an enormous fire over the Ohio River that shut down the antiquated span connecting Cincinnati and northern Kentucky for six weeks.
Daily commutes were snarled. Shipping delays rippled across the eastern United States. And residents who had grown accustomed to intractable fights among politicians over how to update the unsightly and overburdened choke point — and how to pay for it — had a glimmer of hope that, finally, something might get done.
“After the fire, I thought for sure it’s going to happen now,” said Paul Verst, who estimates the shutdown cost his logistics company in Cincinnati $30,000 a month in delays.
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“But,” he said, “they’re back to fighting.”
On paper, the frowzy, 57-year-old double-decker truss bridge would seem like the kind of project that could help power a grand deal this year between President Joe Biden, who is pushing the most ambitious federal investment in infrastructure in decades, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the most powerful Republican in Washington.
Instead, the Brent Spence Bridge has become a window into the depth of the political and ideological divide that is shaping the debate in Washington over Biden’s $2.3 trillion plan, so profound that McConnell — a longtime proponent of fixing the structure — has become its most vocal and hostile opponent.
Although the president’s initiative could provide the best chance in decades to upgrade a bridge that McConnell has deplored as “outdated and inadequate,” it is also a costly plan, paid for primarily through substantial tax increases on businesses and the rich. The senator wasted no time denouncing it as a bloated, partisan expansion of big government.
“I can’t imagine that somewhere in a multitrillion dollar bill, there wouldn’t be money for the Brent Spence Bridge,” McConnell said on a recent swing through Kentucky. “Whether that is part of an overall package I could support? I could tell you if it’s going to have massive tax increases and trillions more added to the national debt, not likely.”
McConnell declined to elaborate on his position when approached in the Capitol this week, repeating the same line twice to a reporter asking whether concern about the bridge might prod him to embrace Biden’s plan: “It’s an important project, and long overdue for a solution.”
McConnell’s calculation reflects a reality that has thwarted previous presidents’ attempts to steer ambitious infrastructure plans through Congress and threatens to complicate the path for Biden’s. The parochial horse-trading that once powered such major legislative compromises, prodding members of both parties to put ideology aside and strike deals of mutual interest, is mostly a thing of the past.
McConnell is “like a wishbone, pulled on both sides,” said Trey Grayson, a Kentucky Republican who has served as secretary of state and worked on the bridge project as the leader of Northern Kentucky’s chamber of commerce.
“He would love to invest in Kentucky, not just because of his legacy but because he believes in it,” Grayson continued. “On the other side, he’s the Republican leader of a caucus that doesn’t want to cooperate with Biden, doesn’t want to spend money, doesn’t want to raise corporate taxes and is more willing to vote ‘no’ than figure out how to make this thing work.”
It is a position shared with nearly every Republican in Congress, as they weigh the imperatives of national politics against the needs of their home states and districts. Many of them have already concluded that no road or bridge is vital enough to embrace what they call a disastrous package that spends and taxes too much.
The Brent Spence Bridge — named for a 16-term Kentucky congressman who retired in 1963, the year it opened — is sturdy enough, but it was designed to accommodate roughly half the amount of traffic it now handles every day. By one estimate, its eight lanes carry freight amounting to 3% of the nation’s gross domestic product each year, in addition to tens of thousands of daily commuters. Accidents amid the cramped and narrow lanes are frequent and, given that there are no side shoulders on the bridge, harrowing. In an era of booming e-commerce, the situation is only likely to become worse.
The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which sits on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, was already one of the country’s largest cargo airports, even before Amazon began building what will eventually be a 3 million-square-foot air cargo hub. DHL has a hub there, while distribution centers for Wayfair and Coca-Cola are situated nearby, not far from the only Airheads candy factory in the United States.
Armadas of trucks heading southeast from three major interstate highways all come together in Cincinnati to traverse the four southbound lanes of the Brent Spence. The bridge is part of a corridor that, according to one study, contains the second-most congested truck bottleneck in the United States, ranking behind Fort Lee, New Jersey, home to a perennially clogged interchange leading to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.
“It’s all the trucks,” said Al Bernstein, who lives in Covington, the smaller city on the Kentucky side of the bridge, and whose wife refuses to drive over it. “The local citizens — they get hurt. But it’s the trucks that cause it.”
One proposal that has circulated for years would spend $2.6 billion to build a new, much wider bridge next to the Brent Spence, doubling the lanes.
The challenge of overhauling the bridge corridor is not new to political leaders in Kentucky, Ohio or Washington, where it has long been held out as a symbol of the nation’s backlogged infrastructure needs. President Barack Obama made a speech in front of the bridge in 2011 as he pitched a major jobs and public works plan. President Donald Trump promised to fix it, too.
“I remember when McConnell started becoming a big person in Washington, we were like, ‘Oh, this is great. We’re going to get more federal money and we’re going to get the bridge done,’” said Paul Long, a resident of the Kentucky side of the river who would “do anything I can to avoid” driving across the bridge. “Then we had Boehner, who was the speaker of the House at the same time,” he added, referring to John Boehner, the retired 12-term congressman whose district sat just north of Cincinnati. “People were thinking, ‘Yes, definitely going to get it done now.’”
A conversation about a bridge that everyone wants to fix but no one ever does is a conversation about the dysfunction of modern politics itself. Debate over its fate quickly turns into a lament about how dogmatic philosophies — like Republicans’ blanket aversion to tax increases, or Democrats’ insistence on including an ambitious federal safety-net expansion in their public works plan — have supplanted the subtle art of the backroom deal.
Decades ago, such compromises were powered in large part by so-called earmarks, which lawmakers could insert in legislation to direct federal money toward their pet projects. But the practice came to be seen as a symbol of self-dealing and waste as the anti-spending Tea Party swept the Republican Party, and after a series of scandals — including one that led to the imprisonment of lobbyist Jack Abramoff — Congress banned it in 2011.
“Just as this bridge’s failings were becoming more and more obvious, they did away with earmarks,” said Mark R. Policinski, CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. “Before that, a project like this, you’d get your ducks in a row at the local and regional level and you’d go to the federal government and they’d pay 80% of the costs.”
The challenges are also local. As the current proposal to double the lanes has languished, politicians in Ohio and Kentucky have squabbled over whether to use tolls to help pay for it, as well as how drastically to reconfigure the tangle of interstates meeting at the riverfront.
“Obviously, there’s congestion on the bridge and obviously, we would like to see the congestion reduced,” said Joseph U. Meyer, the mayor of Covington. “But have they come up with a plan that deals effectively with that congestion without causing collateral damage?”
A generous contribution by the federal government could help assuage some of these concerns. But the chief barrier to that, many residents say, has been the all-or-nothing politics of hyperpartisan Washington.
Take the case of Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a retiring Republican who lives in Cincinnati and crosses the bridge to the airport for the commute to and from Washington. He has spent years trying to secure increased federal funding to make the project possible, working closely with Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a Democrat.
Now, Portman is in a pickle. Biden’s plan would almost certainly secure his bridge — a potential legacy item to punctuate a long career in Washington — but to pay for it, Democrats are proposing rolling back portions of the 2017 Republicans tax cut law written, in part, by Portman, and a slate of other programs he believes have no business being called infrastructure.
The Republican senator is instead pushing for a vastly slimmed-down measure focused on traditional road, bridge, water and transit projects funded through user fees. His party’s plan includes some of the same funding priorities as Biden’s, including billions of dollars for bridges like the Brent Spence. But at only about $189 billion in new funding, it amounts to less than one-tenth the size of the president’s proposal.
“I don’t think we have to do the big corporate tax increases as long as its focused on things like bridges,” Portman said. “If it’s focused on this broad array then yeah, it’s a $2.3 to $2.7 trillion package — that’s impossible.”
Democrats, unswayed, have threatened to use an arcane budget maneuver known as reconciliation to pass an infrastructure bill with only Democratic votes if Republicans refuse to substantially increase their offer. If that were to happen, Kentucky and Ohio could finally receive federal checks big enough to undertake the Brent Spence project — over unanimous Republicans opposition.
Brown, the lone Democrat in Congress with a direct stake in the bridge, said the coming weeks would be a “test” for Republicans.
“I hope they decide they want to work with us,” he said, adding that the window of opportunity would not be open long. “We are not going to let Mitch McConnell’s or other Republicans’ definitions of partisanship get in the way of doing something big.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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