Kentucky Gets the National Transportation Policy Spotlight

The home state of CSG’s National Headquarters has been in the national transportation policy spotlight a fair amount in recent weeks. First, President Obama chose to highlight the need to repair the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstates 71 and 75 over the Ohio River between Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio, during his September 8 speech to Congress unveiling his jobs plan and its proposed infrastructure investments. Just a day later, Indiana officials ordered closed another Ohio River span, the Sherman Minton Bridge between Louisville and Southern Indiana, after cracks were discovered in its steel beams. It was a 2010 Kentucky truck crash that prompted the National Transportation Safety Board last week to recommend a ban on cell phone use by commercial drivers. And this week, the President used the Brent Spence Bridge as a backdrop to again tout his jobs plan in the backyards of both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Kentucky is also the focus of an article I have out this week in the state business magazine The Lane Report. It examines why most highway projects take so long to complete.

Ohio River Bridges as Symbols of Aging Infrastructure

“There are private construction companies all across America just waiting to get to work,” President Obama told Congress earlier this month in unveiling the $447 billion American Jobs Act. “There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America.”

That bridge, the Brent Spence, is a 48-year-old span that today carries twice its intended traffic load and doesn’t have emergency breakdown lanes. Listed as functionally obsolete by the National Bridge Inventory due to being over capacity, the Brent Spence is literally crumbling as well. It has been known to occasionally shed chunks of concrete onto vehicles crossing its lower deck. There are plans in the works to supplement the bridge with a new span at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion.

On Thursday, the President visited Hilltop Concrete in Cincinnati and used the Brent Spence as a backdrop to further tout his jobs plan in a speech that was politically charged.   

“Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge,” the President said. “Help us rebuild America. Help us put this country back to work. Pass this jobs bill right away.”

But the Republican National Committee pointed out following the speech that a new bridge to supplement the Brent Spence is in no way a “shovel-ready project” and construction could not begin for another four years.

“The unemployed really can’t wait till 2015 for their stimulus-funded jobs,” an RNC memo to reporters said.

Of perhaps more pressing concern is the other Ohio River bridge span that has been in the news of late, the Sherman Minton. That Louisville-area bridge was ordered closed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels on September 9th when Indiana transportation officials, who oversee the bridge’s maintenance (Kentucky actually owns the bridge), found cracks in its steel support beams. The closure has had a huge impact on the daily commute of tens of thousands of motorists in the region and put an additional burden on another bridge, the Kennedy, which has been rated by inspectors as even less sufficient and which is due for upgrading as part of an ambitious plan to construct two new bridges and reconstruct a major interchange where three Interstates come together in downtown Louisville.

“Closing the Sherman Minton Bridge will put a big crimp into interstate commerce and getting people to their jobs and home again,” noted U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a September 10th blog post. “The bridge is a primary link for commuters between New Albany, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky. I-64 is a major highway for east and westbound freight, connecting the important hub of St. Louis with points east.”

Although President Obama did not mention the Sherman Minton Bridge by name in his speech at the Brent Spence this week, it was clearly also on his mind.

“A major bridge that connects Kentucky and Indiana just closed down for safety reasons,” the President said. While in Cincinnati, he met with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth to discuss what may happen with the Sherman Minton. Fischer told reporters repairs to the bridge could qualify under the President’s infrastructure bank proposal. But if the bridge shutdown is declared an emergency, officials could seek to obtain the necessary funding much more quickly.

Depending on the scale of the necessary repairs, which are as yet to be determined, the Sherman Minton could be shut down for anything between several months and several years.

NTSB Calls for Ban on Cell Phone Use by Commercial Drivers

It was a March 2010 truck crash on Interstate 65 in Kentucky that killed 11 people including a family of Mennonites which prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to recommend earlier this month that all commercial drivers should be forbidden to use cell phones, whether hand-held or not, except in emergencies.

“Distracted driving is becoming increasingly prevalent, exacerbating the danger we encounter daily on our roadways,” said NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman. “It can be especially lethal when the distracted driver is at the wheel of a vehicle that weighs 40 tons and travels at highway speeds.”

A spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, a trade group, largely agreed with the safety board’s recommendations, The New York Times reported.

The Kentucky crash occurred when a truck driver travelling southbound on the Interstate crossed a 65-foot median, went through a cable barrier and hit a northbound passenger van. Board investigators discovered that the truck driver had made four calls in the minutes before the crash, the last of them at the time his truck left the highway.

The U.S. Department of Transportation last December proposed a rule to ban the nation’s 3.7 million commercial drivers from using cell phones. It banned them from texting in 2010.

A listing of the state laws on distracted driving can be found here.

Article Highlights “Why New Roads Take Years”

I have an article out this week in the Kentucky business magazine The Lane Report that looks at the process of completing a road project in the state. It examines each phase of a 14-year project to widen and realign a stretch of U.S. 68 in Jessamine County, near Lexington. The article, entitled “Why New Roads Take Years,” is the first in a two-part series for the magazine. In next month’s issue, I’ll look at the complexity of funding transportation projects today and the policy options being considered for streamlining federal programs and processes and giving states more flexibility in spending federal funds.

Connecticut Officials Explore Creating State Infrastructure Bank

I spoke to Deirdre Shesgreen of The Connecticut Mirror this week for her article about how Connecticut may explore setting up a state infrastructure bank. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has asked transportation officials to look at new financing mechanisms to fund highway and transit projects. The article also looks at federal infrastructure bank proposals (including one put forward by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT) and the existing federal TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program, which acts similarly to an infrastructure bank. You can read more about state infrastructure banks in my Capitol Research brief on the topic from earlier this year.