By Stephenie Steitzer
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The number of accidents in the southbound lanes of the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge has tripled since the Newport on the Levee entertainment complex opened two years ago - and officials say relief is more than a decade away.
Through mid-August, there have been 66 accidents in the southbound lanes of the bridge, which carries Interstate 471 over the Ohio River. That compares with 49 accidents on the same stretch last year.
In 2001, there were 21 accidents - seven of which occurred after the entertainment complex opened in September.
(Story continues below graphic.)
While most of the accidents did not cause injury and none resulted in death, city officials said it is just a matter of time before that happens.
"To do nothing, as they are doing now, is absolutely stupid to me," said Newport City Commissioner Jan Knepshield, referring to Kentucky officials who control the bridge. "I guess we'll wait until we have a serious accident and somebody is injured or killed until we do something about it."
Officials said they knew the Ky. 8 exit ramp off the bridge was a problem when planning began for riverfront development in 1997. They also acknowledged that getting the money necessary to reconstruct the ramp will be difficult because of competition for a small pool of dollars.
At the same time, development is booming in Newport, a city of 17,000. Plans for a $40 million riverfront expansion - including a Hilton hotel, office space and more retail - are in the works.
And Newport on the Levee remains a major entertainment destination, with its hip eateries, upscale movie theaters, shops, and proximity to the Newport Aquarium and riverfront festivals.
The now-common scene on the bridge - especially on Friday and Saturday nights - is bumper-to-bumper traffic that at times backs up to Fort Washington Way. For those going to the levee or the Hofbrauhaus beer garden and restaurant, it can take up to 30 minutes to cross the bridge and enter the Newport riverfront - a 0.6-mile span.
Most levee-goers, though, don't seem to mind the wait. Business owners said they've heard no complaints.
The congestion seems to be more of a hassle for the levee's residential neighbors and for Cincinnatians who shop at Bellevue's Kroger store or the Party Source.
Columbia Township resident Aaron Schwarber, 31, said the bridge is most dangerous for southbound drivers who have to quickly cross two lanes of traffic and then slam on their brakes to squeeze into the Ky. 8 exit lane.
Schwarber, who spoke as he shopped at the Party Source, said he usually drives right past the Ky. 8 exit, opting instead for the next exit to get to the store.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "Poor management and planning."
No end in sight
As part of the city's riverfront redevelopment plan, officials in 1997 projected increased traffic in the area and noted a need for a new ramp. But city manager Phil Ciafardini said those estimates missed the mark.
As the sun sets in the west, people head south across the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge into Newport's riverfront.
(Tony Jones photo)
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"The backup situation is happening sooner than the report would have indicated," he said.
The city determined that the most feasible way to reroute the exit ramp would be to construct one that would pass under I-471 and run parallel with the northbound exit ramp, according to a 2000 study.
Newport officials have estimated that it would cost at least $24 million to build a new exit ramp that would ease congestion on the second busiest bridge in the region.
Kentucky owns the bridge but will not have money to begin drawing any plans to improve the ramp for at least six years. The federal government could kick in the $24 million, but it is likely that any federal money will be funneled to fixing the Brent Spence Bridge first.
Rep. Ken Lucas, D-Richwood, will be challenged to get the money for a new interchange in a Republican-controlled Congress. He also has requested $500 million in federal funding to replace the Brent Spence Bridge. That project has been tagged a priority by regional officials.
The I-471 bridge also will compete for dollars with a proposed plan to revamp a snarl of interstate highways in Louisville and a plan to construct an east-west interstate across southern Kentucky.
"We hope to make progress on it this year," said Lucas spokesman Joe Clabes. "We certainly would hope sooner rather than later."
Few road dollars
In the meantime, state Rep. Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, said he and other Northern Kentucky delegates are lobbying the General Assembly for the money. He said he hopes planning can begin on a new exit ramp in the next five years.
"It's a mess," Callahan said. "I don't know if anyone anticipated the type of reaction there was going to be at Newport on the Levee."
Obtaining money from the state could be tough since Kentucky is in the midst of a $40 million budget shortfall and most road projects across the state have been delayed.
Until the situation is resolved, officials encourage drivers to Newport's riverfront to use other routes. But the Newport on the Levee Web page still directs drivers to take I-471 to Ky. 8; as do computer-mapping Web sites, Mapquest and Yahoo.
"There are a number of routes into Newport, but most folks tend to go down the interstate and take the quickest, shortest way," Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Bob Hill said.
City Commissioner Knepshield said he wishes the state would add a sign that says "Newport on the Levee, next four exits'' along southbound lanes of I-471.
While officials struggle to solve the congestion problem, many said it is all part of the growing process. Several Levee residents said they would rather have these issues than Newport's former problems.
It takes Fifth Street resident Beverly Simon an extra half hour to get home from work some nights, but she is still happy Newport is expanding.
"I just think this is all a part of growing," Simon said. "I'm not adverse to that. I like the fact that I can walk to Barnes and Noble."
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