The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Another Bridge to Nowhere

Brent Spence and Obama Have Much in Common These Days

Boy, I bet you thought – and probably hoped – you were never going to hear the phrase “a bridge to nowhere” associated with a politician again. However, this time the span in question is not the Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska and the politician is not former Alaskan Governor and Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Instead, the politician is President Obama, who also happens to be the current Democratic Presidential candidate.

Obama was in my hometown of Cincinnati Ohio last Thursday to give a speech ostensibly promoting his latest piece of signature legislation, the American Jobs Act, aimed at reducing unemployment. The bill has almost zero chance of passing Congress, at least in anything remotely resembling its current form, for two reasons. First, it is chock-full of spending measures of a type that are anathema to most Congressional Republicans at the moment. Second, Obama is politically weak and Republican leaders, smelling blood in the water, are in frenzied attack mode.

President Obama speaking in Cincinnati Ohio
in front of the Brent Spence Bridge
In order to combat this, Obama has taken his show on the road, striking a fighting populist pose wherever he goes. His Democratic base has taken (faint) heart from his newfound aggressiveness for the first time in a very long while. Republicans have denounced the bill and this speech as “buying votes” and “political theater” respectively.

Obama set his speech in Cincinnati in order to stand beside one of our many bridges – the Brent Spence Bridge. Owned by the state of Kentucky, built in 1963, and named after a U.S. Representative from the Bluegrass State who long ago faded into obscurity, it is the viaduct over the Ohio River for Interstate 75, the second most traveled highway in the U.S. interstate system. Local leaders have been talking about replacing it with a newer, larger bridge for several years now.

“We used to have the best infrastructure in the world . . . How can we sit back and watch all these countries in Europe and Asia build newer airports and faster railroads and stronger bridges?” Obama bemoaned in his speech. “Tell Congress to pass this jobs bill right away,” was his unsurprising solution. “It will lead to jobs for concrete workers . . . jobs for construction workers and masons; carpenters and plumbers; architects and engineers,” he continued. “If you want construction workers rebuilding bridges like this one – pass this jobs bill.”

His particular choice of bridge, which Obama assured, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, was “sheer coincidence,” runs between Ohio, the home of Speaker of the House John Boehner and Kentucky, the home of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “the two most powerful Republicans in government.” This is the chief source of the charge that Obama was engaged in pure politics. The fact that Ohio has been a pivotal swing state in recent Presidential elections does not hurt either.

Doubtless, the President’s trip and remarks related to his re-election bid and this is hardly scandalous. Any speech by any sitting politician is part re-election bid by definition. Moreover, there is a long and sometimes illustrious history of Presidents using their office as a bully pulpit to advance their Party’s partisan philosophies and/or their own political fortunes. However, those benefits should always be incidental to effective policy promotion. There is much to suggest this was not the case with Obama in Cincinnati.

First, the Brent Spence Bridge project is not mentioned anywhere in the American Jobs Act. Second, even if the federal government allocated funds for it, this is far from a shovel-ready project. Stefan Spinosa, an engineer employed by the Ohio Department of Transportation confirms replacing the Brent Spence is on his organization’s docket but it is only one of a dozen such infrastructure improvements. It is in the preliminary engineering and environmental clearance phase, with no hiring of construction workers until anywhere from 2013 to 2015.

Third, even with federal funding, local money is also required. Spinosa confirms Ohio has allocated about $27 million to date for the project. However, Chuck Wolfe, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, reports his state has nothing set aside yet. On this basis and more, McConnell dismissed Obama’s entire pitch, saying, “I don't think he's fooling anyone.”

Obama got little buy-in from our local newspaper. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s headline on the day of his visit proclaimed, “Obama Visit Won't Build New Bridge.” In fairness, the next day its editorial board opined the President’s visit was worthwhile even if it created no jobs in the short-term because it drew attention to a project that has been slow at best getting started. They termed it a “fresh start to a long-term, $2.4 billion project that . . . is only going to become more expensive the longer we wait to take the first steps to actually build it.”

While infrastructure spending is both important and woefully under-funded in recent decades, the question remains if the Brent Spence Bridge is a credible poster child for the cause. The Federal Highway Administration does not consider it “structurally deficient,” meaning it is safe to drive on. Instead, they rate it “functionally obsolete,” meaning it is too narrow for the volume of traffic using it.

There is no doubt the Brent Spence has outgrown it original design of eighty-five thousand vehicles per day. It is already running at more than twice this capacity and expected to top two-hundred thousand vehicles per day within two years. Although crashes occur five times more frequently on the bridge than the surrounding highways, it ranks in the middle for crashes among functionally obsolete interstate bridges and fatalities are few.

The Brent Spence is a two-tier bridge, with southbound traffic carried on its upper deck and northbound traffic on its lower deck. It experienced its first structural problem in June of this year, when concrete from the upper deck fell onto the lower deck. However, the incident resulted in no injuries and the bridge was open for business as usual by the next day. A major construction project in 1986 expanded the Brent Spence from three lanes to four lanes on each deck.

Bottleneck situations are arguably the bridge’s biggest problem, with even minor mishaps causing backups extending seven miles or more. Commercial traffic often re-routes itself to avoid the Brent Spence, incurring additional time and expense for those employing a conduit that moves four percent of the nation’s GDP annually.

One of the honored guests at Obama’s speech was Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear. He was undoubtedly present to petition for funds to repair or replace the Sherman Minton Bridge, connecting Louisville Kentucky with New Albany Indiana. Opened in 1962 and named after a now-forgotten Supreme Court Justice from Indiana, a runaway fifteen container coal barge struck this bridge’s central pier back in 2009. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels closed it to all traffic just this month when construction crews discovered cracks in the same structure.

The subsequent traffic nightmares on both sides of the Ohio River resulting from the closure are far more severe than anything the Brent Spence experiences. In fact, the closest it came is when all of its lanes temporarily shut down as a result of . . . yeah, you guessed it . . . the President’s speech.

The Sherman Minton Bridge seems a far better setting for Obama’s remarks than the Brent Spence. At least it actually is structurally deficient, along with seventy thousand other U.S. bridges. Unfortunately, Sherman Minton is located between two states highly likely to vote red in the 2012 Presidential election. Equally unfortunate, Obama chose political theater over effective policy promotion in selecting the location for his remarks. Neither his political reputation nor his bill’s chances of passage improved as a result.

Obama has done slightly better of late in attempting to get both this nation and his Presidency moving forward again. He needs to avoid off ramps and detours of the sort he took in Cincinnati. Otherwise, the country will continue suffering its current unemployment woes as it travels on a bridge to nowhere and Obama will suffer the inglorious fate of Sherman Minton and Brent Spence – he may not be gone after 2012 but he will be already forgotten.