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MADISON, Ind. – There were no surprises in Monday’s news conference with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood at Madison’s City Hall.
LaHood, who earlier in the day had visited officials with the Louisville bridges project in Jeffersonville, Ind., was escorted into Madison by Indiana Congressman Baron Hill to personally pledge the $20 million in federal grants awarded to the Milton-Madison Bridge project.
“There’s no better use of taxpayer money” than replacing the deteriorating 80-year-old span over the Ohio River, LaHood said. He acknowledged the bridge’s importance to residents and to commerce in this part of Kentuckiana, “but the No. 1 reason we’re doing this is for the safety of the people.”
The bridge project is one of 51 projects nationwide named by LaHoold on Wednesday, Feb. 17, to receive funds from the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program. Also called TIGER, the competitive grant program was funded by Congress with $1.5 billion dollars for “shovel ready” infrastructure projects as a part of the federal stimulus program.
More than 1,400 applications were submitted in September to compete for TIGER funding, totaling $60 billion. (See Page 3 for more information on the other winning projects.)
Milton-Madison Bridge officials from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration teamed up to submit the request for $95 million in TIGER funding to pay the bulk of the estimated $131 million project. Both states had agreed to pay for half of the $36 million balance.
With only $20 million granted from TIGER funds, it wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday if the project would get off the ground.
But hours after LaHood’s Feb. 17 announcement, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear issued a statement pledging as much as $89 million from the state’s federal road fund to make up Kentucky’s share of the balance – and then some.
The federal grant “will generate much-needed jobs and result in a lasting benefit – a safe, modern river crossing for generations of citizens of both of our states,” Beshear said in a news release Wednesday. “... The TIGER grant will enable us to free up bridge-replacement funds for used elsewhere.”
But how can Kentucky afford to pay?
Jack Couch, a former judge-executive for Trimble County and now executive director of the Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agency, attended Monday’s festivities and said he is pleased to know the project is heading toward the construction phase.
It’s something he has been working for since 1986, he said.
To make sure the project would be funded, even if TIGER grant money wasn’t awarded, he said lawmakers began considering back-up funding plans for the project when the General Assembly convened in January for the 2010 session. In this session, the General Assembly is working to finalize the state’s 2010-12 budget, which is effective July 1.
“It would have been great to get the full amount” of the grant, Couch conceded, but said funding from Kentucky and Indiana would be “more than sufficient” to complete the project.
Couch said he commends Trimble Judge-Executive Randy Stevens, State Rep. Rick Rand (D-47th) of Bedford and State Sen. Ernie Harris (R-26th District) of Crestwood – and their counterparts in Indiana – “for their partnership on this. They are all on the same page and committed to getting this project funded.”
In a phone interview Friday, Rand said he is very happy the project made the cut, as he, too, has been working toward this goal for more than 20 years.
So, how is it that the state can afford to kick in more than the $18 million it had committed to last year?
Rand, who is co-chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee and the 2010-12 Budget Preparation and Submission Subcommittee, the State Road Fund is completely separate from the General Fund, which is facing more than a $100 million shortfall.
The State Road Fund, he said, is funded by revenue from the federal gasoline tax, as well as “use tax” on the sale of new automobiles in the state.
Rand said he and Kentucky’s Acting Transportation Secretary Michael Hancock “are committed to putting the money for the project into the 2010-12 budget. “He feels the [project] is critical and the need is that great.”