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How huge infrastructure projects will use billions in new federal money

President Biden is visiting Kentucky to announce billions of dollars for major bridge, tunnel and highway projects that have been stalled for years

Tractor trailers and other vehicles exit the Brent Spence Bridge near downtown Cincinnati. (Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer/AP)
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President Biden’s visit Wednesday to the Cincinnati area, where he announced $1.6 billion in funding for a bridge that links Ohio and Kentucky, marked an evolution in the rollout of federal infrastructure money as the nation begins to tackle some of its largest and thorniest transportation projects.

Throughout the past year, the Biden administration has awarded hundreds of smaller grants that will help to shape streets and transit lines across the country. In announcing the latest round of grants, officials are betting on projects that are likely to be the core of the infrastructure law’s legacy.

The Brent Spence Bridge is among about a dozen major projects to receive federal money in recent days, offering a boost for the nation’s ailing spans, a massive rail project and an interstate crossing in a major metropolitan area that has suffered from decades of neglect.

Such projects can carry price tags in the billions, often putting them out of reach of state governments and even existing federal programs. Lawmakers provided $17.5 billion over five years in the infrastructure law to target the nation’s most ambitious projects.

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Biden’s trip also underscored bipartisan support for such investments. He was joined by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other officials from both political parties.

Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said megaprojects are ideal candidates for federal backing given their scale, the complexity of working across state lines and their connection to the national economy.

“They tend to carry interstate commerce, and that’s effectively the mandate of DOT and, frankly, what the Constitution is asking of the federal government,” Tomer said.

Here’s how four of the nation’s largest infrastructure projects will use the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from Washington.

Brent Spence Bridge, Ohio and Kentucky

Overall project cost: $3.6 billion

New federal money: $1.6 billion

The Brent Spence Bridge is sturdy — but overworked.

The jumble of commuter traffic and long-haul trucks pouring over the Ohio River has overwhelmed the 59-year-old span that connects Cincinnati and Covington, Ky., creating one of the nation’s largest bottlenecks at the merger of two interstates.

But money from the infrastructure law — after decades of local advocacy and agitation — will allow the two states to erect a companion bridge west of the existing span, which was built to carry 80,000 vehicles a day but handles about twice that today.

Mark Policinski, chief executive of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, who has pushed for the project for two decades, said the ups and downs mean little now that the project is ready to lift off.

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“The overwhelming feeling is … one of appreciation and happiness,” Policinski said. “It’s not like, ‘It took so long.’ It’s, ‘We’re here. Let’s go.’”

The new bridge will carry traffic from Interstates 75 and 71, while the old span will be refurbished to prioritize local traffic, with the speed limit reduced to 45 mph for drivers crossing between the area’s central business districts.

Unlike some similar spans — such as the Lewis and Clark Bridge that opened in the Louisville area in 2016 — the new Cincinnati-area bridge won’t have tolls.

“With the federal contribution, the states now have the ability to meet their end of the bargain without imposing tolls,” Policinski said. “The difference is the infrastructure bill, which is Washington finally standing up and admitting that infrastructure is desperately important for this country.”

Calcasieu River Bridge, Lake Charles, La.

Overall project cost: $1.5 billion

New federal money: $150 million

Rusted, steep and narrow, the Calcasieu River Bridge opened in 1952 and was expected to be in use for 50 years. Seventy years later, 88,000 vehicles a day cross the span, which carries Interstate 10.

Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said the bridge remains safe despite its age, but keeping it up to par is swallowing resources.

“I’d much rather rebuild it to current standards than spend a lot of money maintaining something I can’t fundamentally improve,” Wilson said.

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President Donald Trump visited the area in 2019, promising to replace the bridge. In 2021, Biden used the bridge as a backdrop as he urged Congress to pass an infrastructure package. Louisiana officials recently announced it will receive a $150 million federal grant.

Louisiana also received $1 billion from another bridge-funding program created by the infrastructure law, but in a state crisscrossed by waterways and home to many of the nation’s longest bridges, Wilson said the money will need to be spread across several spans.

The state has secured $550 million for the replacement bridge and plans to draw on other sources of federal help, as well as tolls, to cover the costs. The new bridge could be completed by the end of the decade.

“This is going to be felt by locals as well as those folks traveling in and around the region, and to a certain degree, by someone in Iowa or Chicago buying goods that have to be shipped,” Wilson said.

Gateway Tunnel, New York and New Jersey

Overall project cost: $16.1 billion

New federal money: $292 million

The concrete lining of the two single-track tunnels under the Hudson River has worn. Water saturation has undermined the ground beneath the track ballast. The tunnel size creates a tight squeeze for modern train operations.

Meanwhile, saltwater pushed in by Superstorm Sandy has ravaged the electrical system, leading to signal problems that delay hundreds of thousands of passengers on commuter and intercity trains.

Despite upgrades in recent decades, the crossing — used by 450 passenger trains each weekday — has not kept up with modern rail technology. At 112 years old, it’s showing its age.

A $292 million federal grant is giving new life to plans for a new tunnel and rehabilitation of the existing tunnel to create a four-track system between New Jersey and Manhattan’s Penn Station.

With the new funding, Amtrak this year is expected to build a critical piece of the project: an extension of the concrete tunnel casing on the New York side.

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“It helps to get a critical portion of the project completed,” said Stephen Sigmund, spokesman for the Gateway Program, which oversees the project. “The reality is a project like this is really hundreds of smaller projects. And this is a very critical piece.”

Supporters of the project say it is critical to eliminating one of the biggest bottlenecks in Amtrak’s busy Washington-to-New York corridor, serving as the only crossing for passenger trains into New York City from New Jersey.

Sigmund said the project has a financing plan for its estimated $16.1 billion price tag, with about half the money coming from the federal government. Project officials are also seeking more funding from the infrastructure law, which Sigmund said will help “bring the cost down” because it would reduce the reliance on other financing options.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Overall project cost: $879 million (final phase)

New federal money: $400 million

After the Loma Prieta earthquake caused 63 deaths and billions of dollars in damage in 1989 — leaving searing images of cars crushed beneath a buckled freeway — engineers in the San Francisco Bay area took a closer look at one of the world’s most iconic bridges.

Transportation officials said the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t sustain observable damage, but the threat that parts of it could crumple or collapse prompted a prolonged effort to strengthen the span.

The most vulnerable stretches were fixed first, including two key viaducts on the bridge that links Marin County and San Francisco. Those and other projects were finished between 2002 and 2014, costing more than $400 million, local officials said.

But money for the final phase of the seismic-retrofitting effort — including strengthening the span between the two 746-foot towers — was lacking for years.

“Basically, we don’t have the resources as a small agency to fund this size of project,” said Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, which operates and maintains the bridge.

Then came the 2021 infrastructure law.

“It’s critical,” Cosulich-Schwartz said. “It allows it to happen.”

The project’s goal is to prevent major damage to the bridge during an earthquake and to avoid follow-on consequences of having a vital link severed, cutting off “critical lifeline functions,” Cosulich-Schwartz said.

Workers will add steel to the horizontal struts of the two towers, which are hidden behind the art deco facades, Cosulich-Schwartz said. They will add steel plates to the concrete tower bases. And on the main span, he said, “we’ll be installing 38 custom-designed solid-state seismic energy dissipation devices to reduce the amount of energy transmitted to the bridge trusses.”

Other projects

A handful of other projects have also secured funding in recent weeks. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday visited New London, Conn., where that state hopes to use $158 million to accelerate repairs to the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in the Interstate 95 corridor. Meanwhile, Vice President Harris traveled to Chicago to mark a $144 million investment to rehabilitate four bridges on the Calumet River. Here are other projects in line for funding:

∙ North Carolina won a $110 million grant to replace a swing bridge that takes U.S. 64 to the Outer Banks, which sees traffic halted when boats pass through. Drivers must take a 99-mile detour when the bridge mechanism fails.

∙ Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) announced that Mississippi received $60 million to widen a stretch of Interstate 10 from four lanes to six.