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The New York Times

Biden’s massive infrastructure plan comes close to home for McConnell

CINCINNATI – Early in the morning of November last year, a trailer truck carrying potassium hydroxide crashed into another truck that had crashed into the Brent Spence Bridge, causing a huge fire over the river Ohio which closed the antiquated span connecting Cincinnati and northern Kentucky for six hours. weeks. Daily trips were grumbled. Shipping delays have reverberated through the eastern United States. And residents who had grown accustomed to intractable fights between politicians over how to update the unsightly and overloaded choke point – and how to pay for it – had a silver lining that, finally, something could be done. “After the fire, I thought for sure it was going to happen now,” said Paul Verst, who estimates the shutdown has cost his logistics company $ 30,000 a month in Cincinnati. Sign up for The Morning New York Times newsletter “But,” he says, “they’re back in action.” On paper, the 57-year-old frowzy two-story truss bridge would appear to be the kind of project that could help advance a big deal this year between President Joe Biden, which pushes the most ambitious federal investment in infrastructure for decades, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Washington’s most powerful Republican. Instead, the Brent Spence Bridge has become a window into the depth of the political and ideological divide that shapes the debate in Washington over Biden’s $ 2.3 trillion plan, so deep that McConnell – a longtime supporter. date of repair of the structure – has become more vocal sound. and hostile adversary. While the President’s initiative may offer the best chance in decades to modernize a bridge McConnell lamented as “obsolete and inadequate,” it is also an expensive plan, funded primarily by substantial tax increases on businesses and corporations. rich. The senator wasted no time in denouncing it as a partisan and inflated expansion of a great government. “I can’t imagine that somewhere in a multi-billion dollar bill there wouldn’t be money for the Brent Spence Bridge,” McConnell said during a recent passage through Kentucky. “Is this part of a global package that I could support?” I could tell you if this is going to result in massive tax increases and additional trillions added to the national debt, it is not likely. McConnell declined to give further details of his position when approached on Capitol Hill this week, repeating the same line twice to a reporter asking if concern over the bridge might push him to adopt Biden’s plan: “This is an important project and a long overdue solution. McConnell’s calculation reflects a reality that has thwarted attempts by previous presidents to lead ambitious infrastructure plans through Congress and threatens to complicate Biden’s path. The parochial horse haggling that once fueled such major legislative compromises , prompting members of both sides to put ideology aside and strike deals of mutual benefit, is for the most part a thing of the past. McConnell is “like a suspension arm, pulled from both sides,” Trey Grayson said , a Kentucky Republican who served as Secretary of State and worked on the bridge project as head of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “He would love to invest in Kentucky, not just because of his heritage, 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 money. taxes on corporations and is more willing to vote “no” than figure. how to make this thing work. This is a position shared with nearly all Republicans in Congress, as they weigh the imperatives of national policy against the needs of their home states and districts. Many of them have already concluded that no road or bridge is vital enough to adopt what they call a disastrous program that spends and taxes too much. The Brent Spence Bridge – named after a 16-term Kentucky congressman who retired in 1963, the year it opened – is sturdy enough, but it was designed to handle about half the traffic that ‘he currently manages every day. According to one estimate, its eight lanes carry goods representing 3% of the country’s gross domestic product each year, in addition to tens of thousands of daily commuters. Accidents in narrow and narrow lanes are common and, since there are no side shoulders on the bridge, they are heartbreaking. In an era of booming e-commerce, the situation will only get worse. Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport, which sits on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, was already one of the largest cargo airports in the country, even before Amazon began building what will become a hub of air freight of 3 million square feet. DHL has a hub there, while the Wayfair and Coca-Cola distribution centers are located nearby, not far from the only Airheads candy factory in the United States. Armadas of trucks heading southeast from three major interstate highways all congregate in Cincinnati to cross the four southbound lanes of the Brent Spence. The bridge is part of a corridor that, according to a study, contains the second most congested truck bottleneck in the United States, behind Fort Lee, New Jersey, which houses an always-blocked interchange leading to the George Bridge. Washington in Manhattan. “It’s all the trucks,” said Al Bernstein, who lives in Covington, the smallest town on the Kentucky side of the bridge, and whose wife refuses to cross it. “Local citizens – they are injured. But it is the trucks that are the cause. A proposal that has been around for years would spend $ 2.6 billion to build a new, much wider bridge next to the Brent Spence, doubling the tracks. The challenge of redesigning the bridge corridor is nothing new to political leaders in Kentucky, Ohio or Washington, where it has long been touted as a symbol of the country’s backward infrastructure needs. President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the bridge in 2011 as he presented a major jobs and public works plan. President Donald Trump has also promised to fix it. “I remember when McConnell started growing up in Washington, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s great. We’re going to get more money from the federal government and we’re going to finish the bridge, ”said Paul Long, a resident on the Kentucky side of the river who“ would do everything I can to avoid ”crossing the bridge. “Then we had Boehner, who was the Speaker of the House at the same time,” he added, referring to John Boehner, the 12-term retired Congressman whose district sat just north. of Cincinnati. “People were thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ll definitely do it now.’” A conversation on a bridge that everyone wants to fix but no one ever does is a conversation about the dysfunction of modern politics itself. The debate over his fate quickly turns into a complaint about how dogmatic philosophies – like Republicans ‘general aversion to tax increases, or Democrats’ insistence on including an ambitious federal expansion of the safety net in their public works plan – have supplanted the subtle art of the back room. agreement. Decades ago, such compromises were fueled in large part by so-called “earmarks,” which lawmakers could insert into legislation to direct federal money to their favorite projects. But the practice came to be seen as a symbol of self-trafficking and waste when the anti-spending Tea Party swept the Republican Party, and after a series of scandals – including one that led to the jail of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff – Congress banned it. in 2011. “Just as the failures of this bridge became more and more evident, they removed the benchmarks,” said Mark R. Policinski, CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. “Before that, a project like this, you would put your ducks in a row locally and regionally and you would go to the federal government and they would pay 80% of the costs.” The challenges are also local. As the current proposal to double the lanes languished, politicians in Ohio and Kentucky argued over whether to use tolls to help pay for it, as well as to radically reconfigure the tangle of freeways that is growing. meet by the river. “Obviously there is 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 effectively addresses this congestion without causing collateral damage?” A generous contribution from the federal government could help allay some of these concerns. But the main obstacle to this, many residents say, has been the all-or-nothing policy of the Washington hyperpartisan. Consider Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a retired Republican who lives in Cincinnati and crosses the bridge to the airport on his way to and from Washington. He spent years trying to secure increased federal funding to make the project possible, working closely with Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a Democrat. Now Portman is in deep trouble. Biden’s plan would almost certainly secure his bridge – a potential legacy to punctuate a long career in Washington – but to pay for it, Democrats are proposing to roll back parts of the 2017 Republicans’ tax cut bill drafted, in part, by Portman, and a list of other programs that he says have no reason to call infrastructure. Instead, the Republican senator is pushing for a significantly leaner measure focused on traditional road, bridge, water and transit projects funded by user fees. His party’s plan includes some of the same funding priorities as Biden, including billions of dollars for bridges like the Brent Spence. But with only about $ 189 billion in new funding, that’s less than a tenth the size of the president’s proposal. “I don’t think we need to make the big corporate tax increases as long as it’s focused on things like bridges,” Portman said. “If he focuses on that wide range, then yes, it’s a $ 2.3 to $ 2.7 trillion package – that’s impossible.” The unperturbed Democrats have threatened to use an obscure budget maneuver known as reconciliation to pass an infrastructure bill with only Democratic votes if the Republicans refuse to significantly increase their bid. If that were to happen, Kentucky and Ohio could finally receive federal checks large enough to undertake the Brent Spence Project – despite unanimous Republican opposition. Brown, the only 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 wouldn’t be open for long. “We’re not going to let the partisanship definitions of Mitch McConnell or other Republicans stop us from doing something big.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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