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Louisville Courier Journal Op-Ed: Prioritize to pay for bridges

Feb 1, 2012

Here in Kentucky there are now three major bridges in critical need of repair. In addition to the Sherman Minton and the Brent Spence bridges, the Eggner Ferry Bridge in Western Kentucky joined the list when it partially collapsed after being struck by a cargo ship. The day after the incident, I visited the bridge site and met with local officials to assess the situation. Fortunately, no one was injured by the collapse.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, more than one-third of Kentucky's bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Nearly one in five of Kentucky's roads are in poor or mediocre condition. But we don't need statistics to tell us what recent history has proven. The time is long overdue to make infrastructure investment a priority,

Last September, I spoke to President Barack Obama about this issue aboard Air Force One as we traveled to visit the Brent Spence Bridge. I proposed reapportioning Department of Transportation funds, currently allocated for beautification projects, to instead be used for an emergency bridge fund. This would take mandated highway funds that go to "beautification projects," pork-barrel vanity projects and bureaucratic waste and use them for much-needed infrastructure repairs.

Offsetting the cost of these projects by eliminating funds used for projects such as turtle tunnels, flower beds and squirrel sanctuaries will create nearly $700 million for the Highway Bridge Program. If we prioritize our spending, we can build, repair and maintain our infrastructure even while we face a $15.2 trillion federal deficit.

Not fixing our most high-priority bridges and roads could not be more costly. On Sept. 9, the Sherman Minton Bridge was closed due to cracks found in its structure. Major traffic problems and extra costs to businesses have had a profoundly negative impact on the local economy.

Building the new Louisville bridges and modernizing the Spaghetti Junction is estimated to cost Kentucky $2.6 billion and take six years to complete. Unfortunately, we do not have the funds required for either the Louisville bridge project or the Brent Spence replacement project in Northern Kentucky. Each year Kentucky receives about $420 million from the federal gas tax. It would take at least six years of using all of Kentucky's federal allotment of highway funds to build just a new Louisville bridge. A federal emergency fund for bridge repair and replacement that borrows no new money and raises no new taxes would be a good start to paying for the project.

Let's fund construction efforts on America's most high-priority infrastructure needs without adding to our national debt. In this time of massive annual deficits, bridge repair certainly trumps bike paths and squirrel sanctuaries. We have to make these choices in light of our current economic recession, and we can if we work together. In my view, bridge repair and replacement should not be a partisan issue. It is time we prioritize our infrastructure needs and get Kentucky moving again.

Read more at The Louisville Courier-Journal.

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