By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Banning big trucks from the Brent Spence Bridge would ease traffic somewhat on the aging span but would worsen the flow of vehicles elsewhere in the region by 2030, especially on other bridges, according to a draft study prepared by Kentucky highway officials.
The study says the diverted trucks most likely would use the Daniel Carter Beard (Big Mac) Bridge connecting Interstate 471 between Ohio and Kentucky, further stressing another bridge that is at capacity.
The findings are part of an ongoing $2.2 million study on what to do about the Brent Spence, a 40-year-old bridge that spans the Ohio River between Covington and downtown Cincinnati. It is a major conduit of 18-wheelers along Interstate 71 and Interstate 75, major Midwest shipping routes.
Experience the hazards of the Brent Spence Bridge through video in the Enquirer's "Collision Course" special section.
Local officials have proposed replacing the bridge and are trying to secure $750 million in federal funding from Congress to do so.
The U.S. Senate has passed a six-year transportation funding bill that probably would pay for at least part of the project, but the House has yet to pass its version, which is nearly $100 billion more than what the White House wants.
A two-year extension of current funding levels is also possible and negotiations are continuing on Capitol Hill.
The bridge now handles nearly 160,000 vehicles a day, including up to 30,000 trucks. Computer models predict that total Brent Spence traffic could reach nearly 200,000 vehicles a day by 2030, including 43,000 trucks.
The new data suggest that, in addition to greater strain on the Big Mac, diverting trucks from the Brent Spence would put 5,000 more per day on the Taylor Southgate Bridge, which joins Newport and downtown Cincinnati, and 6,000 on the Combs-Hehl Bridge, which links Ohio and Kentucky upriver along Interstate 275.
State highway officials say projections of additional stress on other area bridges can't yet be used to rule out a truck ban as a way to save the Brent Spence, especially since the study has yet to consider how much physical stress would be relieved if trucks were banned.
"But it definitely reinforces why we don't like the idea of a truck diversion," said Mike Bezold, who is overseeing the study for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. "The Big Mac is already at or over its design capacity, and couldn't handle nearly another 40,000 trucks," he said.
The report, along with another draft study showing that a possible new bridge between western Hamilton County and central Boone County near the Anderson Ferry would have little impact on Brent Spence traffic, will be discussed today in a meeting between Kentucky, Ohio and Cincinnati highway and transportation officials.
According to the study, which looked at projected 2030 traffic:
The diversion of trucks from the Brent Spence would increase regional traffic delays by nearly 1 percent throughout the region. The ban also would clog up the adjacent Clay Wade Bailey and Roebling Suspension bridges, because more traffic would be trying to cross the river at fewer spots.
Despite any truck ban, more than 166,000 vehicles - 36,000 more than the Brent Spence is designed to handle - would cross daily.
The Big Mac would go from 8,000 trucks daily to 40,000 and would handle more than half the region's truck trips across the river.
The extra driving time and fuel costs associated with diverting trucks around the beltway would cost drivers about an extra half a million dollars a year.
Banning trucks from the region's interstates has been debated for at least a decade. Burgeoning commuter traffic has followed suburban growth, and heavy north-south truck traffic from Midwest manufacturing centers to markets around the nation has clogged I-75/I-71 on both sides of the Ohio.
Officials banned trucks on I-71/75 through Northern Kentucky through most of the late 1980s and '90s as the "cut in the hill" and its "S-curve" were reconstructed.
Some Northern Kentucky communities sought to keep the ban in place, but were overruled by federal authorities.
Another ban was in place during the rebuilding of Fort Washington Way during the late '90s but was lifted after the construction ended.
The only interstates in the nation with a permanent ban for through trucks are in Atlanta on I-75, I-85 and I-20 inside the Interstate 285 bypass that circles the city. It was able to get a federal exemption to the law forbidding such bans as part of its clean-air plan.
Still, some local elected officials, including Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin, have pushed for a truck ban on I-75 as a short-term fix for congestion. That comes despite the fact that the I-75 corridor study finished late last year discounted the idea as having little impact on traffic and potentially causing problems elsewhere.
"We still don't have a good figure for how many of the trucks are going straight through and how many are local, and we would only be going after the through trucks," Dowlin said. "Maybe we can do it as a short-term solution until the new bridge gets built."
But some suburban officials, such as Clermont County Commissioner Mary Walker, say diverting trucks from the Brent Spence would put an "unfair" burden on them.
"All our highways are built with state and federal dollars, and I think it's ridiculous to burden one community or a number of communities on I-275 by putting in a truck ban," Walker said.
As for the Anderson Ferry bridge idea, another report shows:
Total traffic on the Brent Spence would drop only 8 percent and it would still see more than 200,000 trips a day.
The new bridge would handle only 35,000 total trips a day. Of those 35,000 trips, most would be local traffic to and from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
"We basically don't remove enough trucks or total vehicles to really do much impact for the Brent Spence," Bezold said.
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