FORT MITCHELL, Kentucky — Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates announced competing plans Friday to replace the decaying Brent Spence Bridge in a conservative enclave of northern Kentucky that could figure prominently in the November election.
The 50-year-old bridge carries traffic from I-71 and I-75 along one of the busiest commercial shipping routes in the United States. The Federal Highway Administration has labeled the bridge "functional obsolete" for its narrow lanes that often snarl traffic between Cincinnati and northern Kentucky.
But state and federal lawmakers have been fighting over how to pay for the bridge. While state lawmakers had no problem authorizing tolls of between $1 and $12 for Louisville drivers to pay for their $2.3 billion bridge project spanning the Ohio River, northern Kentucky lawmakers have steadfastly refused to authorize tolls for the Brent Spence Bridge.
They argue more people commute to Cincinnati from Kentucky than vice versa, so Kentucky drivers would pay for most of the cost of the bridge.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell told the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce on Friday he wants to pay for the bridge by repealing a 1931 federal law that sets prevailing wages for federal contractors. McConnell said the Davis-Bacon Act artificially inflates labor costs for federal projects, costing taxpayers $13 billion a year, according to a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
"My bill would not raise taxes at all. It would not add one dime to the federal deficit. And it would not authorize tolling," McConnell said. "In other words a credible, paid for (plan) at the federal level."
Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes endorsed a plan by the Senate Budget Committee that she said would close the shortfall in the Federal Highway Trust Fund and pay for the bridge. It would eliminate some federal tax deductions, mostly aimed at corporations and rich people. She said the plan would generate an extra $75 billion in federal revenue.
McConnell criticized Grimes' plan as a tax increase. And Grimes criticized McConnell's plan as cutting workers' pay.
Northern Kentucky leaders said they were disappointed with both plans.
"None of them are going to happen," said Steve Frank, mayor pro-tem of the city of Covington. "We're going to have to actually come together and make some sensible alternatives for the public to choose from."
Brent Cooper, the interim vice president for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, noted both plans are unlikely given the partisan environment in Congress. It's unlikely the Democratic-controlled Senate would eliminate the prevailing wage and it's unlikely the Republican-controlled House will eliminate tax deductions.
"We need to see compromise in the federal level of Congress in order for transportation initiatives to advance," Cooper said. "Until that compromise happens, we're hopeful but not particularly optimistic."
Northern Kentucky is a hotbed of the Kentucky Tea Party and is where Matt Bevin, McConnell's Republican primary challenger, received most of his support in the May 20 primary. The Grimes campaign criticized McConnell for proposing a federal solution for the bridge after saying earlier this year it was a state issue. But McConnell said he acted because state lawmakers have not.
"The reason I'm suggesting this now is because Frankfort has not come up with a solution," he said. "The session is over, we know no solution has been put forward, and so we need to go in a different direction."