By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Kentucky plans this summer to seek bids for the preliminary environmental work for the Brent Spence Bridge project, the state's top highway official said Wednesday.
The step would be a major move forward in the replacement of the 40-year-old bridge, since environmental studies can take four to six years and cost 5 percent of any major interstate project.
"It's big," Kentucky Transportation Secretary Maxwell "Clay" Bailey said after addressing the Northern Kentucky Home Builders Association in Crescent Springs. "We need to start laying the groundwork for this project."
Local business and political officials have been pushing for at least two years to replace the Brent Spence, arguing that it's a choke point on a major interstate commercial route. In addition, the aging bridge has major safety issues.
State highway officials already are conducting an engineering feasibility study to find the best alternatives for replacing the bridge and minimizing impact to downtown Cincinnati and Covington.
The $2.2 million study has identified five alternatives that are being studied. Three would keep the Brent Spence or a replacement in its current location while building another bridge that would stand to the west of Longworth Hall. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Later this month, the study - due to be completed by year's end - will look at the traffic impacts of each of the five options.
Bailey said he did not yet know how much the environmental study would cost, how long it would take or precisely when it would begin. But he did say the state had secured $4 million in federal money to start the study, thanks to U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.
"This is the next step in the process, and we want to keep the momentum going," Bailey said, referring to the six-year federal transportation funding bill now stalled due to a fight between Congress and the White House over how much to spend.
That bill is being counted on to help pay for the estimated $750 million to repair or replace the Brent Spence.
In addition, Ohio funds could be used for the environmental process.
"We are certainly prepared to help pay for it," Ohio Department of Transportation Executive Director Gordon Proctor said Wednesday.
Last month, the Ohio Controlling Board approved $12 million in state funds for fiscal year 2006 to pay for environmental studies on the bridge. Proctor said some of that money could be used earlier.
"This action keeps the project moving ahead as rapidly as it could," Proctor said. He said that even if all the federal funds were secured immediately, "we still wouldn't know what we would be building. We have pledged our cooperation with the complexities on the Ohio side."
The bridge project will take 10 to 15 years, with the environmental study requiring the initial four to six years.
The environmental study will identify potential impacts on air, water, ground and surrounding businesses and homes, plus point out ways to limit or avoid those impacts. Under the federal funding process, an environmental study is needed before construction can start.
In Louisville, such a "letter of intent" took 51/2 years and cost $22.1 million. But the Louisville project, which includes two bridges and a new interstate interchange, has proven to be highly controversial, slowing the process.
Bailey also said he and Proctor held an eight-hour meeting in Frankfort last month, and that the Brent Spence Bridge was a major topic of discussion.
"I don't view this as a Kentucky or Ohio project, but rather a bi-state project," Bailey said.
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