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Worn Ohio River span stars in Obama jobs speech

By Dan Sewell

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 9 2011 2:11 p.m. MDT

CINCINNATI — Outdated and overcrowded, the Brent Spence Bridge linking Ohio and Kentucky carries hundreds of thousands of vehicles a day and billions in goods a year — 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, by some estimates.

On Thursday night, it also became part of President Barack Obama's pitch for his plan to create jobs, an example of a lagging infrastructure fix plucked from the states of Republican leadership in Congress.

"There are private construction companies all across America just waiting to get to work," Obama said in his address to Congress urging support for his jobs plan. "There's a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that's on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America."

With a few well-chosen words, Obama made the bridge a top priority for replacement and, perhaps, a subtle jab at House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The bridge carries traffic from Interstates 75 and 71, along with substantial amounts of freight, over the river. Overhaul is expected to cost well over $2 billion and take years, but despite years of planning the project still lacks all the funding needed from the federal government and the two states.

"This is a huge project for us," Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory said Friday. "The replacement of this bridge is really very important and critical."

Mallory, who attended Obama's speech Thursday as a White House guest, said: "We're hoping this will move up the priority list."

Local officials say 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product gets carted across the bridge, named for a former Kentucky congressman. They also note that I-75 runs all the way from northern Michigan to southern Florida.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who also sees Obama's attention as a good sign for the project, last month gathered representatives of companies such as Kroger Co., the nation's largest grocery store operator, and the United Parcel Service, as well as union leaders in Cincinnati, to voice support for the bridge project.

Besides its importance to commerce, Brown said, there are growing safety concerns about the bridge, which on most days is more than double its capacity of 80,000 vehicles a day when it opened nearly five decades ago.

Heavy traffic turns to miles-long backups when accidents occur on the bridge, and a Cincinnati man was knocked into the river and died after a crash in June. Chunks of concrete fell onto the lower level of the bridge this year.

"When you break down on this bridge, your life is in danger," said Steve Arlinghaus, a judge-executive in Kenton County, Ky. The Republican official said the federal government needs to take responsibility to get the bridge fixed.

Matt Davis, government affairs vice president for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, said the presidential mention is encouraging and "raises the profile" of a project that's been bandied about for years. But Arlinghaus added: "Action is going to be more important to us than just mentioning our name."

McConnell said he's pleased Obama brought up the bridge but criticized the president in a statement for "lumping a crucial artery for goods and services in America together with a call for another stimulus and massive tax increases."

And Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, said the inability of Washington to set aside money for such projects as bridge repair is the reason why the state is looking to create its own funding source, such as leasing the Ohio Turnpike.

"We're not counting on them," Nichols said.

For his part, Boehner, who represents part of suburban Cincinnati, responded coolly to Obama's jobs plan, which seeks payroll tax cuts to pump up the economy.

"The proposals the president outlined tonight merit consideration," Boehner said after the speech. "We hope he gives serious consideration to our ideas, as well."

Schreiner reported from Louisville, Ky. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Ann Sanner in Columbus and John Seewer in Toledo.

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