By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Time's running out on the Brent Spence Bridge, a key in the nation's interstate system and one of the Tristate's most important pieces of transportation infrastructure.
The bridge has less than 15 years of life left if nothing is done, according to documents acquired by the Enquirer. Many area business and political leaders plan a major push by next fall to secure federal funding for either a replacement or overhaul of the 39-year-old bridge, even though a study on the bridge's future hasn't even started.
What to do with the bridge, which has been crowded for decades, has been discussed - with stops and starts - for at least 10 years. Replacement could cost more than a half-billion dollars and take 12 years or more to complete - roughly when the bridge is predicted to begin physically deteriorating.
ABOUT THE BRIDGE
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
Opened - Nov. 25, 1963, with dedication ceremonies delayed by the assassination of President Kennedy.
Original capacity - 80,000 vehicles daily.
Current traffic loads - more than 140,000 vehicles daily.
Projected traffic loads in 2030 - 180,000 vehicles daily.
Original cost - $10 million.
Cost to replace - $500 million or more.
Length - 1,736 feet (including approaches).
Lanes - Four each way (two decks).
Named for - Newport native Brent Spence (1874-1967), a congressman for 32 years.
How bridge traffic has soared|
Ominously, the need to replace or repair comes at a time when neither Kentucky nor Ohio has any state funds to contribute to such a project.
"There is no question that there is a great need, and the situation is critical," says U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, the Richwood Democrat whose district technically includes the double-decker bridge, which is owned and maintained by Kentucky. "It is a major chokepoint and a safety hazard as well.
"Heck, as a regular citizen, I hate driving on it and try to avoid it when I can. Add to that the fact that it is a major commercial route for the entire country and you can see that we need to do something quickly."
That effort to win funds from Washington could come even before Kentucky transportation officials determine the best options for the future of the bridge, which now handles as many as 150,000 vehicles a day. (When it opened in 1963, its design capacity was 40,000 vehicles.)
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has yet to start a $2 million study on the bridge's future, even though the state got the money from Congress late in 2001.
The study, set to begin next month, will consider such options as:
Reinforcing the bridge.
Banning heavy trucks to give the span years more life. (Trucks were banned from the bridge and rerouted onto Interstate 275 while the notorious S-curve in Northern Kentucky was straightened.)
Replacing the bridge.
If any construction is done, transportation officials say their most important and complex task will be to figure out how to keep traffic flowing on I-71/75 during the project.
Even though a determination hasn't been made on what to do, local officials are confident that the bridge's importance to not only this area but the entire Midwest will make it possible to get the money authorized.
"This is a major challenge facing all of us, and we've got to begin this now, or it will be too late," says Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben, who says the bridge is his organization's top legislative priority for 2003. "It takes so long to first, get the money, and then to study and build any bridge. We have to be a step ahead or, before we know it, we'll be in the same boat 10 years from now and everyone will be up in arms."
Local transportation agencies, including the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, have been considering what to do about the Brent Spence for nearly 10 years. But for one reason or another, funding dried up for several individual studies.
One study, part of an examination of the entire I-71 corridor through the region and obtained by the Enquirer through an open records request, stated in 2000 that the bridge had 12-14 years of structural stability left.
At about 150 feet wide, it is considered "functionally obsolete" under federal standards because its lane widths are too narrow and it does not offer breakdown lanes.
The bridge also has the lowest possible rating for traffic flow and is one of Tristate's biggest causes of traffic congestion.
That 2000 study said that, given the massive increase in heavy truck traffic along both I-75 and I-71, combined with heavier truck traffic in the future, the bridge would deteriorate quickly. The Ohio Department of Transportation estimates that a single truck puts as much stress on a highway or bridge as 9,000 to 10,000 cars.
Of the nearly 150,000 vehicles that use the bridge daily, 30,000 to 40,000 are believed to be trucks.
The impact of trucks is a major reason why the Kentucky study will examine the ramifications of banning heavy trucks that are not making local stops, forcing such big rigs onto the I-275 bypass.
"We'd like to see if we would add any life to the bridge if we did that," says Kevin Rust, the study's project manager for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. "If we could buy 10-15 years more, that might put us in a better position to get funding and better fix the problem."
The latest study, expected to take 30 months, will examine what the best options are for replacing or repairing the bridge from an engineering standpoint and narrow the options to two or three.
Just from that perspective, any project would be incredibly complex. Alignments on both sides of the river need to be considered - meaning a new bridge could not be too much to the east or west, or turns into Fort Washington Way, for example, would be unmanageable.
And any proposal would need to keep at least some traffic open across the river during construction.
"That's what makes this so complex and more than just building a new bridge," says Fred Craig, vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering firm that's conducting another study, of I-75, for OKI.
The Kentucky study will not include detailed environmental impact studies, which would be required for any project, especially because both sides of the river are highly developed - Cinergy, for example, has a major switching station on the Ohio side and plans to expand that facility. There's also the issue of historic Longworth Hall on Cincinnati's Pete Rose Way, much less the residential and hotel districts near the bridge in Covington.
The study will include local oversight by a committee made up of Covington, Cincinnati, Cinergy, OKI, the Port Authority, Hamilton County, Kenton County, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, a representative from the trucking industry, and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The Ohio Transportation Department also is working with its Kentucky counterpart.
"We are going to have a lot of local input on this," says Sam Beverage, the chief engineer for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's District 6 office, who once served as the secretary of transportation for West Virginia.
Mr. Beverage adds that such decisions as the appearance of a new bridge would be made much later in the process.
"We think it can be done from engineering and a funding perspective, and we're glad the local business community is helping push this as an issue, because any economic development depends on the transportation system."
Finding the funds
Despite the fact that the study won't come up with some viable alternatives for more than two years, local legislators and business leaders are pushing for the money anyway.
They aren't giving themselves much time. The plan is to get the bridge authorized for federal funding in the big-ticket transportation bill that is renewed every five years. That law is up for renewal by next fall, and a project this size would need to be included if it were to have any chance at getting federal money. The law authorizes Congress to spend money on such projects, but does not actually appropriate money.
If the effort doesn't work, any work on the bridge would probably be delayed for at least another five years.
"Obviously, the availability of funding is the main driver of anything that happens," says Mr. Beverage. "If the money were made available today, though, construction could begin on a new bridge in six, eight years and even less if we just do a rehab."
Representatives in the Southwest Ohio congressional delegation say they will support any initiative on the bridge, while Mr. Lucas says the majority of funding for such a project will need to come from Washington, given the budget deficits in both Ohio and Kentucky. He and others also say they are confident that they can get the bridge inserted into the law by the fall.
"This is a No. 1 priority with me, and I think the case will be easy to make to the rest of Congress of the importance of this," Mr. Lucas says. "And even if we haven't determined how we'll fix it, the need to do something is still there. It's going to cost a lot of money and take a long time, so we'd better get about it."
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