Biden Administration Gives $1.6 Billion for Bridge Project Sought by McConnell, Portman

Biden Administration Gives $1.6 Billion for Bridge Project Sought by McConnell, Portman

January 03, 2023  | Jeff Davis

President Biden will visit Covington, Kentucky tomorrow to make a joint appearance with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and others to announce that the U.S. Department of Transportation will give the mammoth sum of $1.635 billion in federal grants to build a new highway bridge to carry Interstates 71 and 75 across the Ohio River, between Covington and Cincinnati, Ohio. The funding was provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was drafted primarily by a gang of Senators co-chaired by retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and which gained its filibuster-proof level of Senate Republican support thanks to McConnell.

The project will supplement (not replace) the existing Brent Spence Bridge, a double-decker structure currently carrying 4 lanes each way, not just of Interstate traffic but of local traffic as well. The new bridge will be express Interstate-only, leaving the existing Brent Spence Bridge to serve local traffic only, for decades to come.

In a statement, McConnell said “Using my role as Senate Republican Leader, I stood with Sen. Rob Portman to break through gridlock and pass last year’s bipartisan infrastructure deal, delivering record funding for landmark infrastructure projects including today’s grant. Building a new companion bridge on the Brent Spence Bridge corridor will be one of the bill’s crowning accomplishments, bringing long-awaited safety improvements, traffic relief and rejuvenated commerce to Northern Kentucky and Southwestern Ohio.”

Groundbreaking for the new project is expected to begin later this year.

(Eno’s Paul Lewis wrote an op-ed two years ago outlining the need for a new bridge.)

The $1.635 billion is actually two separate grants – $1.385 billion from the Bridge Investment Program, and $250 million from the “megaprojects” program.

$1.635 billion is the largest infrastructure funding allocation for a single project provided so far by the USDOT under President Biden (though it will be eclipsed by the Hudson River Tunnel replacement, whenever the Administration figures out which pots of money will support that $5+ billion grant). In fact, this one project represents almost half of the funding made available in the first year of the IIJA for the two programs from which the funding is derived (in million dollars):

Bridge MEGA Total
FY22 TOTAL PROVIDED 2,358.8 980.0 3,338.8
Brent Spence Bridge 1,385.0 250.0 1,635.0
All Other FY22 Projects 973.8 700.0 1,703.8
Brent Spence as % of FY22 Total 59% 26% 49%

The remainder of the fiscal 2022 competitive bridge grants (the large ones, anyway) should be announced tomorrow (Transportation Secretary Buttigieg will be in Chicago Connecticut to announce another bridge project), and we’re not sure when the remainder of the megaproject grants for 2022 will be formally announced.

We are not quite sure what federal share each of the two grant carries. The two projects have different maximum federal shares set in law – MEGA grants are 60 percent, and large bridge projects are 50 percent. But both of those grant statutes also specify that non-federal partners can use other federal funds, like highway formula funding or TIFIA loans (if the loans are to be repaid by non-federal funds) in addition to the grants, to max out the total project cost at 80 cents federal to every 20 cents non-federal.

If these grants carry the maximum federal share, and if the project overall maxes out at 80-20 for all types of federal money, then Ohio and Kentucky together will have to match with $914 million in other federal funding and $637 million of their own funding, for a total project capital cost of $3.2 billion.

If the Brent Spence Bridge Grant Agreements Carry the Maximum Allowable Federal Share (60% for MEGA and 50% for Large Bridge), Total Funding Sources Could Be:
Bridge MEGA Total
Federal Competitive Grants 1,385.0 250.0 1,635.0
Other Federal Funding 831.0 83.3 914.3
State-Local Funding 554.0 83.3 637.3
TOTAL CAPITAL COST 2,770.0 416.7 3,186.7

The project website says that “The Kentucky General Assembly recently passed and Gov. Beshear signed, a budget bill that included funding required to fulfill state match requirements for large projects. The State of Ohio is using a combination of general program funding, bonds, and other programmatic funds to pay for its portion of the project.”

A Democratic President giving this kind of competitive grant money to a project whose lead Congressional sponsors are prominent Republicans represents a big public moment for bipartisanship in general, and also for the competitive grant process at USDOT.

And it is ironic in the extreme that McConnell is the beneficiary, because under the Trump Administration, McConnell’s wife was Secretary of Transportation, and Democrats kept claiming that she was somehow showing favoritism in the competitive grant process to applicants from her husband’s home state.

We kept tracking the grant awards (see here and here), and there was never any statistical evidence of Kentucky favoritism beyond what you would expect from the state being represented by the Leader of the President’s party and the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. (Bluegrass State applicants may have been given more hand-holding time by senior DOT staff when filling out applications, but when it came to actual federal dollars being allocated, no favoritism.)

But, had this identical $1.6 billion grant been made more than 2 years ago, the news coverage undoubtedly would have been banner headlines about “Chao Gives McConnell $1.6 Billion.” Which is why this project had to wait for a bipartisan moment (and for the massive amounts of money to be given to competitive grant programs at USDOT, which for the most part did not exist before the IIJA).

1/6/26 Addendum: A journalist asked me if this was the most federal funding for a single bridge project in history. The predecessor that came to mind was the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement, which Congress provided specific funding for in the 1998 TEA21 highway law. That project wound up getting $888 million in usable contract authority over six years and $600 million in general fund appropriations in fiscal 2001, for a nominal total of almost $1.5 billion in federal funding.

But there has been inflation since then. We used the latest CBO projections and pulled out the GDP price index deflator (which converts to FY 2012 dollars) and rebased it to convert to FY 2022 dollars. Doing so, we estimate that $1.5 billion in old money is equal to $2.3 billion in today’s money. So the Wilson Bridge is still the largest amount of federal money for a specific bridge project in recent times (which makes some sense, since the original Wilson Bridge was actually owned by the federal government, whereas the Brent Spence Bridge is owned by Ohio and Kentucky.)

Nominal $ Deflator FY 2022 $
FY98 $22.3 0.60786 $36.6
FY99 $66.2 0.61542 $107.6
FY00 $138.7 0.62824 $220.7
FY01 $794.3 0.64345 $1,234.4
FY02 $232.9 0.65357 $356.4
FY03 $233.5 0.66609 $350.5
TOTAL $1,487.8 $2,306.3
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