CINCINNATI – For nearly two decades, Mark Policinski has struggled to find money for building a companion span for the overcrowded, aging Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River, which is a major route for commercial truck traffic in the United States.
What You Need To Know
- OKI's Mark Policinski called the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill a "game changer"
- A federal agency, OKI has final say on all federal dollars spent in region on surface transportation projects
- With funding approval, construction on Brent Spence Bridge companion bridge could start by late 2023
- OKI has a list of $12 billion worth of projects for the region in its 2050 Metropolitan Transportation Plan
With the recent passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by Congress, Policinski's frustration is finally giving way to hope. The bill, he said, is a “game changer.”
“It's about time that Washington, D.C., stood up for infrastructure in this country,” he said. “There's been a lot of talk over the years about how Washington is going to do so much more for roads and bridges. I mean, Trump wanted to put together a trillion-dollar plan. Obama wanted to have a trillion-dollar plan. Well, now we finally have that trillion-dollar plan.”
Policinski is CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), which works with communities in eight counties to advocate for federal funding to support local and interstate projects. OKI has final authority over all federal dollars spent on surface transportation in the region.
Throughout Policinski's long tenure at OKI, how to pay for another bridge on I-75 from downtown Cincinnati to Covington, Ky., has been a problem. Built in 1963, the Brent Spence has seen its traffic increase dramatically over the decades and is one of the worst trucking bottlenecks in the nation.
The Brent Spence Bridge is a critical corridor for the region and the nation. It’s an essential piece of the supply chain we’ve been hearing about for the past few months.
Addressing the bridge is a perennial “top priority” of elected leaders across the region. But there’s never been the necessary funding available to make the project feasible. Most recent estimates on the cost to build a companion bridge total about $2.5 billion.
"Currently, the (federal government) puts in 20% of the cost of a project. That means the feds are going to put in a half a billion, and the locals and states have to come up with $2 billion," Policinski said. "If the feds are putting in significantly more than that, let's say 80%, then those numbers reverse and it becomes much more doable."
The extra funding could be vital to the new bridge being built after years of debate. One of the funding sources discussed in the past was the use of tolls, which has faced strong opposition from some “very, very powerful people,” Policinski said.
"If the federal share grows, the necessity for tolls declines. So we’re hopeful that Washington will feel so moved (by the application) that they’ll pick up their fair share, which really is around 80%’" he added.
OKI is cautiously optimistic that bridge construction could begin late in 2023.
"One thing about having a project that's been hanging around for 20 years is the design is about 90% ready to go,” Policinski said. “The environmental impact studies are done. We know exactly where it's going to go and about how big it will be. Some elements of the design may change, but we're not starting from scratch."
The region’s transportation needs span much wider than that one bridge connecting downtown Cincinnati to Covington, Ky., though. There’s the Western Hills Viaduct, emerging corridors in Butler County and the interchange near the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) that Policinski frankly stated “needs to be totally redone.”
Ohio's roadways carry the third-highest freight volume in the nation. They also account for the sixth-most vehicle miles traveled, which makes it "an essential tool in the national economy," according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
Commute times have gone up by 5.7% statewide since 2011, and on average, every Ohio driver pays $506 per year in costs due to poor roadway conditions, according to a fact shet from the White House.
ASCE gave the state a "C-" for its overall infrastructure, which includes the condition of bridges and roadways, but also railways, storm water systems, broadband reach and more.
OKI has a list of dozens of projects across the three states in its 2050 OKI Metropolitan Transportation Plan, a comprehensive blueprint for preparing the region for its transportation needs over the next 30 years. The price tag for those projects is an estimated $12 billion.
The projects in the plan are the ones that will receive funding from OKI, which traditionally receives about $40 million a year to help make those projects a reality. They expect to receive an additional $20 million this year as a result of the infrastructure bill passing.
Only projects on OKI's 2050 list are eligible for funding. The list is fluid, though, and changes as new priorities emerge.
“As (the infrastructure) money becomes available, we will change the plan to incorporate that new revenue," Policinski said. “This will change the game a bit.”
OKI’s selection process starts in late winter and applications are due in June. Decisions by OKI’s 118-member board will be made in October.
“We’ll follow our normal process because it’s the best in the country as judged by FHWA. This just allows for more projects to be funded. (The infrastructure bill funding) won't change any of the timetables,” Polcinski said.
In past years, projects would have to fight for limited federal dollars. But passage of the infrastructure bill means those projects and dozens of others have a realistic chance of becoming actual roadways, bridges and other infrastructure in Greater Cincinnati and other communities across the nation.
“The bill recognizes the fact that we are in a global economy," Policinski said. "And in a global economy, how you move goods to, from and around your country, or your region, is one of the determinants about whether or not you can compete against other places, including China.”
Among the attendees at the bill signing in Washington, D.C., were Jill Meyer, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber; and Darryl Haley, CEO of Cincinnati’s Metro bus system.
“The funding provided will bring the repair and replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge closer to becoming a reality than ever before," Meyer said. "It also marks the largest federal investment in public transit while also funding airports, waterways, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, electric-vehicle charging stations, and broadband and power infrastructure.”
While money eventually will make its way to cities and states across the nation, going from legislation to actual spending takes time. And decisions about where those dollars will go and how they will be dispersed aren't entirely finalized.
Ohio is set to receive more than $12 billion over the next five years for various infrastructure-related upgrades.
Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the state is expected to receive $9.2 billion for federal highway apportioned programs, and $483 million for bridge replacement and repairs.
There is also a chance for Ohio to compete for the $12.5 billion Bridge Investment Program and nearly $16 billion of national-level funding in the bill, which is earmarked for major projects that could bolster economic development.
It's not just roads and bridges either; the state will also receive money to improve things, like weatherization ($3.5 billion), water infrastructure ($1.4 billion), electric-vehicle infrastructure ($140 million), high-speed internet ($100 million) and cyber security ($26 million).
There's also some discretionary funding that will be divided among the states for projects that need “gap funding” to become a reality.
“It's an elaborate process. This is not going to be done next month,” Polcinski said. “If this were a baseball game, someone may say we’re in the first inning, but I say we’re just getting ready for the first pitch.”
Policinski is prohibited from saying which projects can or should receive funding, but he provided a few examples included in OKI’s 2050 plan.
The projects include the Route 32 corridor in Clermont County, which Policinski called the region’s "Eastern Gate.” He said the area has been booming for the last 15 years and the corridor may need to expand and receive upgrades due to continued growth.
Other projects include the “outdated and over-capacity" I-75/I-71 and I-275 interchange in Kentucky, which is the route you need to take to get to the airport via the Brent Spence Bridge.
Policinski also mentioned the “immense growth and investment" in Butler County causing a need for new infrastructure.
Some of the federal infrastructure funding will be given to states, so they can allocate it to smaller projects, like better access to local businesses and creating safer streets around schools.
Policinski said those community projects are “just as meaningful to people who need them.”
“In most cases, the overwhelming number of the jurisdictions in our region will not be applying to Washington for funding," he added. "They'll be going, as they have traditionally, to us (OKI) or their state department of transportation and under existing guidelines and programs."
Policinski didn’t want to speak to how other organizations, or entities choose to fund their projects, but he said most accepted projects by OKI will receive the funding they’ve asked for. In some instances they may adjust those numbers if it means they can give funds to another worthwhile project.
"If we have a list of projects and realize that if we had just a few more dollars, we could fund another viable project, then we will gently — and I emphasize gently — reduce grant awards to the other projects so that we can fit another project,” he said.