Regular bottleneck congestion on Interstates 71 and 75 across the Brent Spence Bridge spanning the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky is at the forefront of state and local government agendas.
Built in 1963 for $10 million, the bridge named for Newport, Kentucky-born U.S. Rep. Brent Spence is a key link for 10 states from Michigan to Florida. It was designed for 80,000 cars a day, but today sees an average of 170,000 a day with an ever-increasing number of trucks, according to Bob Yeager, Kentucky’s chief District 6 engineer in the Covington office.
“I’ve driven this bridge every day since I got my license in 1968, and I’ve seen the truck traffic increase,” Yeager said. “The bridge is structurally sound, but functionally obsolete.”
The American Transportation Research Institute ranks the I-71/75 river crossing as No. 5 on its list of the Top 100 traffic bottlenecks in the country. Roughly 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product crosses this busy trucking route each year, according to a 2009 study from the Texas Transportation Institute. That equates to $417 billion, more than the total GDP of roughly 150 of the countries in the world.
Yeager likened the Brent Spence – one of the first four bridges crossing the Ohio River in Greater Cincinnati – to a house outgrown by its large family.
“It is incremental,” Yeager explained. “You had two children, then three, and then four and maybe made some adjustments, and then five, and think, ‘How did I get here?’ I have to bite the bullet and buy a new house. So that’s where we are.”
According to the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project, traffic congestion on the Brent Spence Bridge costs an average of 3.6 million hours of delay for passenger cars every year; roughly 1.6 million gallons of fuel are wasted annually due to traffic congestion.
An early 2015 estimate put the cost of replacing the bridge at $2.6 billion. It will require new ramps and realigned links with major infrastructure changes on each side, especially for more urbanized Cincinnati. It could take a decade or more. Meanwhile, every year’s delay in the start of construction is increasing the price that taxpayers will eventually bear by nearly $75 to $85 million in inflation alone.
Fixing the bridge problem is not simply a matter of building a new, bigger one. The entire transportation corridor – in Ohio and Kentucky – needs to be examined, which is what state transportation officials were busy doing in 2017 after Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin commissioned a study to figure out the best approach to fixing the expensive problem. The results of the study are due at the end of 2017, and transportation officials say that although the report will not have price tags or timelines it will present the best next steps for the first time.
The Brent Spence Bridge Strategic Corridor study includes an examination of the Cincinnati Eastern Bypass as proposed by the Citizens for the Cincy Eastern Bypass. The proposed facility would begin in Kentucky along I-71 in Gallatin County and would cross I-75 and extend northeast to I-71 in Warren County, Ohio, and continue north to I-75 in Warren County, Ohio.
In the meantime, the bridge is undergoing routine maintenance to support smooth and safe travel. It is structurally viable for long-term use. Currently the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is managing the bridge maintenance and repair projects in partnership with the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Most recently a new deck overlay was completed, renovating the driving surface. Additional lighting was added, lane stamping was added to improve visibility and give better directions for drivers. The bridge’s original six lanes were divided among two driving decks, but renovations in 1986 eliminated the emergency lanes to widen the bridge to four lanes on each deck. Since then periodic maintenance and improvements have been made on the structure.
“They made the lanes 11 feet (wide) instead of 12 and took away the shoulders,” Yeager said. “It was a tremendous improvement but not a lot of effort, kind of like adding an extra bed to a bedroom in a house. About 15 or 20 years ago we rebuilt the cut in the hill; it was a steep, curvy hill that led into the bridge, so we straightened it out.”
Improvements to the existing structure can only do so much, though.
The Transportation Cabinet’s study should reveal the next steps toward an ultimate goal that will include adding another new bridge. The master plan involves the entire corridor.
“It would be a second circle outside of I-275 – an outer loop that would go to Boone County and connect with Ohio,” explained Jack Moreland, president of Newport-based Southbank Partners. “It basically said that we may need an alternate route, but that doesn’t replace the need for the upgrade of the Brent Spence. Or maybe they build a (new) bridge that’s part of the outer loop. If you look at the success of Louisville with the Gene Snyder and the Watterson expressways, it makes sense we should have a second loop around our area, too. I think we actually need to do both an outer loop and the (new downtown) bridge.”
Regardless of what the master plan will look like, he said the plan is for a new bridge to be added right where the current bridge is. He speculated that the existing Brent Spence would carry Interstate 71 and a new bridge would carry Interstate 75, the traffic backbone of the eastern United States.
“The plan we have currently is a (new) bridge next to it. Keeps it in play, putting another next to it,” Yeager said. “It’s 59 years old and still has a lot of life left in it. We would try to put it back as close to its original (six-lane) configuration as possible. If we ‘got more bedrooms’ we’d take the bunk beds out and we could put a bed back in.”
The study, due out any day, will analyze all of these options and make a recommendation for next steps for the corridor. Local leaders are hopeful that the Trump administration’s focus on infrastructure may culminate in some funding dollars.
Moreland said there is not a lot of consensus on how to pay for the project. He said Northern Kentuckians are reluctant to see tolls. He estimated a bridge project could cost several billion dollars with perhaps somewhere in the $800 million range coming from the federal government.
It’s a big price tag, and regardless of the delays and high costs in the future, Moreland said he hasn’t heard of it negatively affecting business in Northern Kentucky.
“I haven’t heard of a single instance where someone said they weren’t going to locate here because of the (disruption of years of) new construction,” he said. “People think, ‘Well the old bridge is there and we’re using it, and it’s not costing us anything,’ but that’s just not correct. Every morning the traffic backs up into southern Kenton and Boone County to go across that bridge. There is rarely ever not a backup. You have to wait, and that’s costing you money. It’s a cost by not having a new bridge.”
But Moreland senses that the make-do mood is shifting.
“There might be more tolerance for some kind of funding mechanism today than there was three years ago,” he said, “but I can’t prove that at all.”
Yeager agrees that the bridge issue ties in to employment and economic development. The I-71/75 bridge is the main connector from airport in the Northern Kentucky and downtown Cincinnati. However, he also pointed out that the region has bridges that are underutilized.
He hopes the long-anticipated $26 million Route 9 project now underway to connect AA Highway to the Taylor Southgate Bridge in Newport will take traffic off the Brent Spence and provide access to East Covington across the new 12th Street bridge. The hope is that the new roadway will spread bridges traffic out and make conditions better than they are now, which would boost the economies of Northern Kentucky’s river cities.
Until a master plan is complete, the studies will continue to evaluate what is best for the economy, aesthetics, traffic and environment in the entire region – in a crucial piece of road that affects the entire nation.
Abby Laub is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]