Bridge demolition questioned

Monday, May 30, 2005

Bridge demolition questioned(Akron Beacon Journal)

A privately owned bridge over the Ohio River owned by a campaign contributor to Rep. Bob Ney would be demolished under a provision that Ney has inserted in a transportation bill making its way through Congress.

The St. Clairsville Republican has obtained $1.7 million to demolish the Bellaire Bridge, a rundown bridge in eastern Ohio that has been closed since 1990. The bridge's owner, Roger Barack, and his wife have given more than $6,000 to Ney's congressional campaigns, most recently in 1997, and Ney rented office space from Barack, the Plain Dealer reported Sunday.

Ney, a Bellaire native whose district included the city before redistricting, said the money would address a problem getting worse and is not intended to help a friend. Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said the two have not seen each other in more than two years.

``I'm trying to do the right thing,'' Ney said Sunday.

Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, previously has been connected to Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is being investigated by a grand jury and two Senate committees for charging several Indian tribes $80 million to represent casino interests.

Barack could not be reached for comment Sunday. There is no telephone listing for him in Bellaire.

Football-sized pieces of the bridge have fallen in Benwood, W.Va. Benwood and West Virginia officials along with Rep. Shelly More Capito, whose West Virginia district is south of the bridge, have lobbied Ney to secure federal funds for the demolition, Ney said.

The toll bridge was built in the 1920s and was a key route across the river until free bridges were built nearby. It appeared in the movie Silence of the Lambs during a scene that was filmed around Bellaire.

Critics, including Rep. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who now represents Bellaire, say Ney is inappropriately trying to use federal dollars to bail out Barack.

``It seems puzzling to me that public dollars would be used to tear down a bridge that is owned by an individual,'' Strickland said.

The bridge was closed in 1990 in an agreement between the Ohio Department of Transportation and the bridge's former owner, Interstate Bridge Co.

The U.S Coast Guard ordered the demolition years ago, and Barack is appealing fines of more than $200,000 for failing to comply, said Roger Wiebusch, bridge administrator for the Coast Guard's St. Louis office.

The department rerouted state Route 7 away from the bridge, making it inoperable, and gave Interstate Bridge $2.1 million, $895,000 that was intended for demolition, according to correspondence between the company and the state.

But Ney said there was no stipulation in the agreement with Interstate Bridge requiring the bridge be torn down, leading to the confusion that persists today.

Instead of destroying the bridge, Interstate Bridge transferred ownership to Barack, who talked to the state about reopening the bridge, according to state correspondence.

Ney said he was told the fines would make up the difference between the federal appropriation and the demolition costs, which was estimated around $2.1 million.


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