By Tony Lang
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Most officials, on both sides of the Ohio River, now agree replacing the I-75 Brent Spence Bridge will be this region's No. 1 transportation project for years to come.
Even that is an understatement. Not just because Brent Spence connects the vast midsection of this country for freight and travel, or because the bridge alone could cost a half-billion dollars and take 15 years to complete, but because the project is about so much more than a bridge.
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The Enquirer has found the Brent Spence Bridge to be one of the most hazardous in the nation. Ride through the treacherous spots on WCPO video and rate the bridge's 'Fear Factor' in our online survey.
Brent Spence is the pivot point of this region's interconnectedness - like it or not. That bridge erases the Ohio River as a barrier, reduces the Ohio-Kentucky border to little more than a welcome sign and connects Northern Kentucky and Southwest Ohio like Siamese twins. It is the chief link to one of our most valuable assets - the airport. Brent Spence is also one of the most dangerous bridges in the country. Big trucks in particular are wearing it out at an accelerating rate and when anything goes wrong on the bridge, it can become a bottleneck, stopping traffic for miles in either direction. Because the bridge is so interconnected, it cannot be replaced without also redoing approach ramps and making improvements well beyond the bridge, or else we would just shift the bottleneck somewhere else.
Yes, there's a consensus to replace the bridge, but that agreement will be sorely tested by hundreds, if not thousands, of critical decisions: Do we build one new bridge or two? Where should they be aligned? At what elevations? What entrance/exit ramps should be added or closed? At what cost? What properties must be taken? Will the bridge design make a "statement" about us?
This region had to work closely together to reconstruct Fort Washington Way, the $328 million connector between I-71 and I-75 south of Cincinnati's downtown. Replacing the Brent Spence will require even more of a united effort. It can help connect Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky with more than just concrete and steel. This bridge-building could move us farther down the road toward connecting on other regional projects and get us past the "us" vs. "them" mentality.
"If we get the enormous amount of money needed to replace the bridge," Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken said, "it will require us all to get our act together. I do think it will facilitate a familiarity that will carry over into other issues. I can't tell you it will abate any of the competition for attracting companies. But the cooperation is healthy. We don't communicate as often as we should."
Kentucky and Ohio senators and congressmen, chambers of commerce and other development officials already are lobbying Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and congressional appropriators to back the Brent Spence replacement. Federal officials know that river-crossing is a major chokepoint between Michigan and Florida on one of the nation's busiest freight and tourist routes. They may even know the 40-year-old span has no break-down lanes, handles 155,000 vehicles a day - almost twice the number it was originally designed for - and has one of the nation's highest crash rates for its short length, as the Enquirer's James Pilcher reports in a two-part series today and Monday. But Washington officials are not about to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at a project until this region specifies a bridge design and identifies costs. That study has just begun here.
Luckily, the stalled six-year federal transportation bill has bought us some time. Congress is not expected to reauthorize spending until next year, and some senators are pushing to go year-by-year for the next year or two. By then, a detailed plan could be ready.
Kentucky controls the river's bridges and will lead the $500 million project. But Ohio and Kentucky officials meet regularly on the project, and Ohio Department of Transportation Director Gordon Procter says, "Ohio could incur as much expense on approaches on the Ohio side," as the actual bridge will cost. He's particularly concerned that the bridge project be folded seamlessly into the larger make-over of I-75, and that the proposed bridge doesn't require tearing up Fort Washington Way's new ramps. He says just a one-degree difference in elevation could cost Ohio $100 million to reconnect.
Since a site immediately west of the current bridge is under study, Cinergy is concerned about the fate of its riverfront substation that supplies electricity to downtown Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Longworth Hall's owners wonder about their historic property. Covington fears losing an exit or two. A northbound ramp from Covington's Fourth Street connects at the mouth of the bridge for a white-knuckle merger with high-speed traffic. Newport City Manager Phil Ciafardini is pleading that this region first fix the narrow, hairpin Ky. 8 exit ramp that dangerously backs up Newport traffic on the I-471 Daniel Carter Beard Bridge. The "Big Mac" bridge now carries 103,000 vehicles a day, and it would likely be needed to carry many more during Brent Spence replacement.
Bridges, more than anything else here, remind us how interconnected we all are. That we're better off working together than working at cross purposes, like drivers on the Brent Spence who must cross three or four lanes to get to an exit. Forty years ago, before there was a Brent Spence bridge, only 30,000 vehicles a day crossed the Ohio on the Roebling Suspension Bridge. A river did run through us. The river no longer divides us. Narrow-mindedness divides us. Competing for pork divides us. Some in Cincinnati want to see reconstruction of the Sixth Street Waldvogel Viaduct funded first. In the thick of day-to-day "traffic," we lose sight of the bigger picture. We set puny, less ambitious goals. Will the new bridge express our aspirations? If we want to be a force as a region, why haven't we combined more institutions, formed more cross-river partnerships? Some federal agencies still put us in separate regions. Northern Kentucky still looks to Frankfort; Cincinnati, to Columbus. Even our churches pigeonhole us - one diocese north of the river, another for south of the river.
But the bridge is a unifier, a connector. Replacing the Brent Spence will necessitate more connections. We can build on those connection to grow into a more united, bigger-market metro.
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