Obama's Burning Bridges With Political Trip to Boehner's Home State

September 21, 2011 - 2:00 PM
Bridge To 2012

The 1960's built Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River that connects northern Kentucky with Cincinnati is shown, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, from Covington, Ky. President Obama has picked the bridge as a site to highlight his jobs plan in a speech Thursday beneath the bridge in Cincinnati. The bridge is located near Republican House Speaker John Boehner's district. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

CINCINNATI (AP) — Of the thousands of bridges, highways and other infrastructure across the nation in need of repair or replacement, President Barack Obama is paying special attention to a 1960s-built double-decker across the Ohio River laden with political ramifications.

The Brent Spence Bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky — the respective home states of Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — will serve as the backdrop Thursday to a visit by Obama to promote his jobs plan.

"You think these things happen by accident?" Boehner asked this week.

White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer agreed Wednesday that the location is no accident, saying the president will contend his plan would put construction workers back to work on a project critical to both Ohio and Kentucky — "if the Republican leaders in Congress were willing to work with the president and the Democrats to do something that would create jobs in the economy."

Obama already highlighted the bridge, which officials estimate carries 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product annually, when he presented his jobs plan to Congress earlier this month. Keeping attention focused on the bridge also enables the White House to heat up the 2012 political campaign in the presidential election swing state of Ohio, where an incumbent Democratic senator also faces a re-election battle.

Spotlighting the Brent Spence makes sense to Andy Fox, office manager for Green B.E.A.N. Delivery in Cincinnati, which uses the bridge frequently to deliver organic and other fresh produce in the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana region.

"I would think that would shore up his cred with the hometown crowd here," Fox said. "I can't imagine that it would hurt."

The bridge has been deemed "functionally obsolete" by federal standards for years.

"It's just frightening," Fox said of the span that carries 170,000 vehicles a day, more than double the original capacity. "It's almost always a story every day, often really close calls."

Fox said the bridge has blind spots and lanes too tight for the heavy truck traffic. Traffic from two interstates — 75 and 71 — is funneled across the bridge, with complex choices for motorists on either end seeking to exit or merge. It also lacks emergency lanes, adding even more danger after a breakdown or an accident — a Cincinnati man was knocked into the river and died after a traffic accident on the bridge in June.

"Everybody around this region agrees that it has to happen, so how can you diss it?" said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier University political scientist. "Regionally, I think it was brilliant, the simple politics of it ... it's a very effective image to describe what he's trying to do."

Obama's visit will be his second to Ohio in two weeks. Vice President Joe Biden has already been to the state twice this month.

"They're more interested in counting votes than creating jobs," said Kevin DeWine, Ohio GOP chairman. "They come to Ohio because it's a state they have to win to get re-elected."

The state also will likely be pivotal for the Republican nominee. No modern-day Republican has been elected president without carrying Ohio. George W. Bush did twice; Obama won in 2008.

Additionally, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who had been lobbying the administration about the bridge, will face a Republican challenger in Ohio as he seeks a second term in 2012. DeWine said that while Brown has advocated Obama's spending programs, Ohio unemployment is still at 9.1 percent.

Brown in August gathered labor leaders and officials of companies including the United Parcel Service and grocery chain Kroger Co. in Cincinnati to highlight the bridge's importance.

"It is a key issue around here," said Doug Sizemore, who heads the AFL-CIO council in Cincinnati. "It's turning the economy around, it's taking care of infrastructure needs and creating jobs."

The project would bring tens of thousands of jobs in bridge and related highway construction. But the growing price tag, now at $2.4 billion, has left it still needing funding. And Republican officials say with more engineering and other preliminary study needed, it's still years away from being "shovel-ready" for many new jobs.

U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Cincinnati Republican, said the bridge for years has had bipartisan support and he hopes that it doesn't suddenly become a political sticking point.

"I welcome the president's new-found support of the Brent Spence," Chabot said. "I just hope that politics won't get in the way of it."

Boehner, speaking to a business luncheon this week, said "a real highway bill" from Congress should be used to help states fund infrastructure needs. He described Obama's plan as more taxes and "spending more money that we don't have."

McConnell's office released a statement earlier saying there were bridges in need of work in Virginia and other places nearer Washington that Obama could visit.

"President Obama may think the best way to distract people from the challenges we face is to stand near a bridge in a swing state and pit one group of Americans against another, and hope his critics look bad if they don't go along with him," McConnell said Wednesday in Washington. "But I don't think he's fooling anyone."

Among other bridges in need: the Sherman Minton Bridge down the river in Louisville, Ky. It has been shut down because of safety concerns since Sept. 9, the day after Obama announced his jobs plan.

___

AP writer Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed.to this report.

___

Contact this reporter at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell