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Biden’s expansive infrastructure plan reaches McConnell’s home

President Joe Biden, speaking at a political rally in Duluth, Georgia, on his 100th day at the office, walks through asphalt at Fort Benning, a military post in the state, on April 29, 2021. (Doug Mills / The New York Times)

President Joe Biden, speaking at a political rally in Duluth, Georgia, on his 100th day at the office, walks through asphalt at Fort Benning, a military post in the state, on April 29, 2021. (Doug Mills / The New York Times)

CINCINNATI – Early November morning last year, a tractor trailer extracting potassium hydroxide crashed into another truck that had hit the Brent Spence Bridge, setting a huge fire over the Ohio River that closed the ancient spring connecting Cincinnati and North Seven .

Daily trips to work were snarled. Delays in dispatch were shaking in the eastern United States. And residents who were accustomed to unresolved battles among politicians over how to update the unpleasant and congested suffocation point – and how to pay for it – had a glimmer of hope that something could finally be done.

“After the fire, I thought for sure that this would happen now,” said Paul Verst, who estimates the shutdown cost his Cincinnati logistics company delays $ 30,000 a month.

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“But,” he said, “they are fighting again.”

On paper, the 57-year-old two-story truss bridge looks like a project that could help make a big deal this year between President Joe Biden, who has been pushing for the most ambitious federal infrastructure investment in decades, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. the most powerful Republican in Washington.

Instead, the Brent Spence Bridge became a window into the depths of political and ideological divisions that formed the Washington debate over Biden’s $ 2.3 trillion plan, so deep that McConnell, a longtime supporter of fixing the structure, became a his most vocal and hostile adversary.

While the president’s initiative may provide the best chance in decades to build a bridge, which McConnell has condemned as “outdated and inadequate,” it is also an expensive plan, paid largely by significant tax increases for businesses and the rich. The senator wasted no time in exposing him as a bloated, guerrilla expansion of the great government.

“I can’t imagine that there will be no money for the Brent Spence Bridge somewhere in a multimillion-dollar bill,” McConnell said during a recent sweep in Kentucky. “Is this part of a comprehensive package that I could support?” I could tell you whether this will lead to a huge increase in taxes and more trillions added to government debt is unlikely. “

McConnell declined to comment when he addressed him at the Capitol this week, repeating the same remark twice to a reporter asking if concerns about the bridge could prompt him to embrace Biden’s plan: “This is an important project and should be find a solution. ”

McConnell’s calculation reflects the reality that thwarted previous presidents’ attempts to direct ambitious infrastructure plans through Congress and threatens to complicate Biden’s path. The domestic horse trade, which once prompted such major legislative compromises, prompting members of both parties to put ideology aside and make deals of mutual interest, is largely a thing of the past.

McConnell is “like a button pulled on both sides,” said Trey Grayson, a Kentucky Republican who served as secretary of state and worked on the bridge project as leader of the North Kentucky 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 hand, he is the Republican leader of a parliamentary group that does not want to cooperate with Biden, does not want to spend money, does not want to raise corporate taxes and is more inclined to vote “no” than the figure of how to make it happen. something to work. “

This is a position shared with almost every Republican in Congress, as they assess the imperatives of national policy in relation to the needs of their home states and districts. Many have already come to the conclusion that no road or bridge is vital to embrace what they call a disastrous package that costs and taxes too much.

The Brent Spence Bridge, named for a 16-year-old congressman in Kentucky who retired in 1963, is strong enough the year it was opened, but is designed to hold approximately half of the traffic it currently handles every day. According to one estimate, its eight sails carry 3% of the country’s gross domestic product each year, in addition to tens of thousands of daily trips. Incidents among narrow and narrow lanes are frequent and, as there are no side arms on the bridge, it is defended. In the age of thriving e-commerce, the situation is unlikely to get worse.

Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport, located on the Ohio River side of Kentucky, was already one of the largest cargo airports in the country, even before Amazon began building what would eventually be an air freight center with an area of ​​3 million square meters. DHL has a center there, and the distribution centers for Wayfair and Coca-Cola are located nearby, not far from the only Airheads candy factory in the United States.

Armades of trucks heading southeast from three major interstate highways gather in Cincinnati to cross the four lanes south of Brent Spence. The bridge is part of a corridor that, according to one study, contains the second most congested truck site in the United States, behind Fort Lee, New Jersey, home to a permanently clogged junction leading to the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan.

“It’s all trucks,” said Al Bernstein, who lives in Covington, a smaller city on the Kentucky Bridge side and whose wife refuses to drive. “Local citizens are getting hurt. But these are the trucks that cause it. “

A proposal that has been circulating for years will cost $ 2.6 billion to build a new, much wider bridge to Brent Spence, doubling the lanes.

The challenge of overhauling the bridge’s corridor is not new to political leaders in Kentucky, Ohio or Washington, where it has long been seen as a symbol of the country’s backward infrastructure needs. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in front of the bridge in 2011, outlining a master plan for work and public works. President Donald Trump has also promised to fix it.

“I remember when McConnell started becoming a big man in Washington, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s great. We will take more federal money and finish the bridge, “said Paul Long, a Kentucky River resident who would” do anything to avoid it “while driving across the bridge. “Then we had Boehner, who was the Speaker of Parliament at the same time,” he added, referring to John Boehner, a retired 12-year-old congressman whose district sat just north of Cincinnati. “People thought, ‘Yes, I will definitely do it 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. The debate over her fate quickly turned into a complaint about how dogmatic philosophies – such as Republican aversion to tax increases or Democrats’ insistence on including an ambitious expansion of the federal safety net in their public works plan – have shifted the fine art of the backstage deal .

Decades ago, such trade-offs were driven largely by so-called target brands that lawmakers could insert into legislation to channel federal money into their pet projects. But the practice has come to be seen as a symbol of self-mutilation and waste, as the Republican Party’s binge tea party and a series of scandals – including one that led to the imprisonment of lobbyist Jack Abramov – were banned by Congress in 2011.

“Just as the shortcomings of this bridge became more apparent, they removed targets,” said Mark R. Policzynski, chief executive of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council. “Before, as a project like this, you would take the ducks in turn at the local and regional level and go to the federal government and they would pay 80% of the cost.”

The challenges are also local. As the current proposal to double the bands fell through, politicians in Ohio and Kentucky debated whether to use tolls to help pay for it, and how drastically to reconfigure the interstate meeting on the river.

“Obviously there are traffic jams on the bridge and we would obviously like to see the congestion reduce,” said Joseph W. Mayer, the mayor of Covington. “But have they come up with a plan to deal effectively with this congestion without causing further damage?”

A generous contribution from the federal government could help alleviate some of these concerns. But the main barrier to this, many residents say, is the all-or-nothing policy of hyper-party Washington.

Take the case of Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a retired Republican who lives in Cincinnati and crosses the bridge to the airport for travel to and from Washington. He spent years trying to secure increased federal funding to make the project possible, working closely with Sen. Sharod Brown of Ohio, a Democrat.

Now Portman is in the pickle. Biden’s plan would almost certainly provide his bridge – a potential legacy to highlight Washington’s long career – but to pay for it, Democrats are proposing to repeal parts of the 2017 Tax Reduction Act, written in part by Portman. and other programs that he believes the business is not called infrastructure.

Instead, the Republican senator is pushing for a severely weakened 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’s plan, including billions of dollars for bridges like Brent Spence. But with only about $ 189 billion in new funding, it amounts to less than a tenth of the president’s proposal.

“I don’t think we need to make big corporate tax increases, as long as they focus on things like bridges,” Portman said. “If it’s focused on that broad spectrum, then yes, it’s a package of $ 2.3 to $ 2.7 trillion – that’s impossible.”

Democrats, unwavering, have threatened to use a secret maneuver known as reconciliation to pass an infrastructure bill with only Democratic votes if Republicans refuse to significantly increase their offer. If that happens, Kentucky and Ohio could finally get federal checks big enough to undertake the Brent Spence project – because of the unanimous Republican opposition.

Brown, the lone Democrat in Congress with a direct bet on 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 for long. “We will not let the definitions of Mitch McConnell or other Republicans for partisanship interfere with anything big.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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