The Ohio Bridge is a reminder of the political hurdle Biden faced at the beginning of the infrastructure negotiations

April 10, 2021, 12:00 p.m.


Posted: Apr 10, 2021 at 12:00 PM

The Brent Spence Bridge spans the Ohio River on the Ohio-Kentucky border in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 2, 2021. – US President Biden has announced an ambitious $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan designed to pump huge sums of money into improving the nation’s bridges and roads, public transportation, railways, ports and airports. The Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Covington to Cincinnati via Interstates 71 and 75, is considered “functionally obsolete” due to daily traffic, which is almost double that of its original design. (Photo by Jeff Dean / AFP) (Photo by JEFF DEAN / AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) – The Brent Spence Bridge, which spans the Ohio River, has long been a political football and a symbol of government malfunction.

On one of the busiest truck routes in the US, which carries more than $ 1 billion in freight every day, the standstill is a constant reminder of unfulfilled promises in the country’s long-standing infrastructure debate.

“There has been a long two-party contest, but now there is a need,” said Brad Slabaugh, general manager of Hilltop Companies, a construction company sitting in the shadow of the bridge. “We had promises from previous administrations and we would like to see those promises come through.”

As a new debate begins on President Joe Biden’s ambitious infrastructure proposal, the Brent Spence Bridge offers a lesson in the challenges facing administration and Congress in tackling one of Washington’s most delicate issues, the every part of the country concerns. Infrastructure is seen as a rare opportunity for both parties and is rarely one that thrives in a deeply divided capital city.

It was a decade ago that then-President Barack Obama traveled here to sell his own infrastructure plan known as the American Jobs Act. Standing on the Hilltop Concrete Plant site in 2011, he used the bridge as a backdrop to repair a bridge that had been classified as “functionally obsolete” for more than two decades.

“My question is what is Congress waiting for?” Obama asked that sunny afternoon while Slabaugh and others watched in front of a small audience. “Why does it take so long?”

But the Obama infrastructure plan stayed behind in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Then a new president came with a new promise.

“The replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati is vital to the region,” said Donald Trump on a visit to Ohio four days before winning the White House in 2016.

The promise would sound hollow later after his infrastructure plan never materialized and became the punchline.

Biden makes his pitch

The Brent Spence Bridge, built nearly 60 years ago as a key link on the I-75 corridor from Miami to Michigan, is just one of many long-neglected projects awaiting a fresh look from the Biden administration’s American employment plan.

The proposal is bigger and bolder than previous plans and goes far beyond roads and bridges. Negotiations between the White House and Congress in the coming months will determine whether it is too big or too brave.

The $ 2 trillion proposal provides much more, including $ 100 billion to bring broadband internet within reach for every American, $ 400 billion to raise wages for the elderly, and $ 45 billion to help Replace lead pipes.

“To automatically say that the only thing that is infrastructure is a freeway, a bridge or whatever – that’s just not rational,” Biden said this week. “It really isn’t.”

With the president inviting lawmakers from both parties to the White House to begin negotiations next week, the definition of infrastructure is a critical part of the discussion, as is payment. He proposes raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, causing Republicans like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio to backlash.

“In order for the president to start raising taxes, he knows this is no novice for most Republicans, maybe all Republicans,” Portman told CNN on Friday. “So let’s figure out how we can pay for it to make more sense, including user fees like we normally do with infrastructure.”

Portman said he wants to work with the White House on a bipartisan bill that he believes there would be support, but he believes the plan that Biden revealed last week goes too far beyond traditional infrastructure.

“It’s just way too big,” said Portman. “I hope he will focus on the real infrastructure and work with us on how we can pay for it.”

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown said he and other Democrats believe a majority of Americans will support corporate tax increases to fund long-awaited infrastructure improvements. He also rejected the suggestion that the proposal was too broad.

“That argument about the definition of infrastructure is downright silly,” Brown told CNN. “It is a bill that will meet the needs – the weeping needs – for a generation rebuilding our country.”

Democrats are aggressively refuting the growing Republican argument over the scope and cost of what Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has called the “Trojan horse for massive tax hikes.” At the same time, the politics of this particular plan are local, and the Brent Spence Bridge leads straight to his home state of Kentucky.

“It’s not up to Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans to decide what is partisan or impartial or bipartisan,” Brown said. “It is up to the American public and the general public who overwhelmingly want to see this infrastructure plan.”

However, it is an open question whether the Democrats will stay united behind the proposal, especially if West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin expresses concerns about leading the bill through a budget process known as reconciliation that Democrats can do without Republican support.

“We are frustrated when politics gets in the way.”

The passing of the laws is a critical test not only of the scope of Biden’s agenda, but also of whether the government can deliver on promises to fix the country’s crumbling infrastructure – much to the frustration of those who try to get over the from here Brent Spence Bridge drive in downtown Cincinnati to Covington, Ky.

“We have been here before. We had several presidents say, “Hey, we’re going to take care of the big infrastructure needs,” and that didn’t happen, “said Brent Cooper, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.” We’re very concerned and nervous about this. This is a Part of why we want a bipartisan approach. “

Cooper, who owns an IT company whose technicians have been hit by traffic jams and delays on the bridge, said he was “thrilled” that Biden is focused on infrastructure. He said most business owners oppose a corporation tax hike and would rather fund the $ 2.5 billion project through “some sort of user or mileage fee.”

“We get frustrated when politics stand in the way of construction,” said Cooper.

Not all business owners share this view.

The chief executive officer of a large corporation in the Cincinnati area said the importance of rebuilding the country’s dilapidated infrastructure should not be prejudiced by a debate over corporate tax increases.

“Some people will bark, but you have to somehow get the check for dinner. It’s time to move on, ”the managing director told CNN on condition of anonymity to speak openly about the controversial tax issue. “It would be a great shame if another opportunity to pass an infrastructure plan was missed.”

Mark Policinski, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana regional council director general who has campaigned for a new Brent-Spence bridge for more than a decade, believes this moment is different. The pandemic has created greater willingness to spend on government spending and a greater awareness among consumers of where their goods come from.

“We have been promised so many times that this will be pushed over the goal line but I think it’s different,” said Policinski. “People today understand better than ever how fragile an economy is.”

The White House has not identified any projects that would be included in the infrastructure proposal, but the president said 10 key bridges that heavily affect the country’s trade would be given top priority. State and local officials on both sides of the Ohio River are confident that the Brent Spence Bridge will be among the selected projects when a bill is passed.

A senior civil servant told CNN that a competitive grant program was being set up to fund “large bridges that carry high volumes of people and freight and that need to be reconstructed or replaced due to their condition or inability to manage current traffic levels”.

From the banks of the Ohio River at Hilltop Construction Company, all eyes will be on the infrastructure debate that begins in Washington.

The deadlock seen almost every day when trucks queuing for cement loads is bad for business. A 4 mile drive can routinely take up to 75 minutes, which is longer than the concrete can sit without a discharge.

Slabaugh said he likes most of what is on Biden’s infrastructure bill. Tax hikes are not his preference, but he said a new bridge is vital to his business and he hopes a compromise can be reached.

“I’m not a big proponent of tax hikes,” he said, “but the bridge has to be built one way or another.”

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