The Brent Spence: It won't last foreverBy Bob Driehaus
Cincinnati Post 1/25/03
Those who know the Brent Spence Bridge best know what's wrong with it.
• Planners describe congestion: Drivers collectively lose the equivalent
of 60 days of time
every day because of gridlock.
• Inspectors describe wear and tear: Left untouched, they say, the
lower "chord'' or frame
of the bridge will eventually fracture like a paper clip wiggled back and forth.
• Police describe horrifying accidents: A fatal wreck this week in
which a semi obliterated a
Dodge Shadow witnesses say was having car trouble might have been avoided if the bridge
had emergency lanes.
Altogether, they describe a bridge that's growing old
and is no longer big enough for the job.
And it's an important one.
Nearly two cars a second drive onto the
double-decker bridge, which is the funnel over the
Ohio River for two crisscrossing north-south
interstates, I-75 and I-71. Trucks move $24.5 billion in
commodities annually along I-75 alone, the busiest
interstate trucking route in North America. And local
commuters use the bridge to get between Ohio and
So when Kevin Rust, Kentucky Transportation
Cabinet engineer in charge of pre-construction, considers the task of replacing the Brent
Spence Bridge, he puts it in this perspective:
"It's one of those once-in-a-career projects, probably the biggest to come
around here for the
20 or 30 years I'll be here," Rust said.
The project -- which begins in earnest next month with the commencement
of a $2 million,
2*-year study -- will be a financial and engineering challenge, eventually requiring $425
million in 2002 dollars, about a decade of planning and constructing and a creative strategy
to avoid disastrous rush-hour gridlock while detouring or restricting traffic.
Transportation officials expect the cost of the Brent Spence Bridge project
will require the
federal government to double Greater Cincinnati's allotment of transportation funds the year
"A project of this magnitude would normally take as much money as the region
for all its projects. You're talking about going to the U.S. Congress and saying we need twice
what we normally do," Rust said.
"It's a big project, and it's going to take a long time and cost a lot
of money," said Jon
Deuser, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., of Southgate. "But it's got to be
Bunning is prepared to push for the bridge money, "but that is a big chunk
Deuser said. "But it helps that the bridge spans two states."
The study will be conducted by Burgess & Niple engineers, pending completion
negotiations with the firm.
Construction will take three to four years and won't begin for at least
five years, planners
estimate, due to the massive amounts of planning and financial gathering.
• Why it's needed: Brent Spence, built in 1963, carried 149,000 vehicles
a day in 2001, far
over its recommended capacity of 100,000 vehicles a day.
On a scale of A to F, with A being the least congested, Brent Spence is
already graded an F
during rush hour, and C or D at other times.
"There are just not enough lanes to maintain an acceptable level of service,"
"Oftentimes in rush hour we hit a level of service F, which means traffic comes to a standstill
and there's no movement. That can vary greatly anywhere from a minute to 20 minutes."
Wally Whalen said the commute from his Florence home to his job in Woodlawn
into a 50-minute commute in the 27 years he's been driving it. Traffic used to start slowing
around Fifth Street in Covington; now it slows around Buttermilk Pike in Fort Mitchell.
"Each decade, I guess, it's gotten progressively worse," Whalen said.
The number of trucks has particularly increased, he said. "Last night,
it was wall-to-wall
trucks. So it looks like a huge wall of steel waiting in line to go across the bridge.
"Trucks take a longer time to get going and once traffic starts to open
up and get past the
bottleneck, the trucks just take -- because of their size and weight -- a long time to get
A number of trucking companies have instituted their own detour routes
around the crowded
bridge during rush hours, said Ned Sheehy, president of Frankfort-based Kentucky Motor
Transport Association, a trade organization for the trucking industry.
"Some trucking companies will avoid it at all costs, especially during
rush hour. Some
companies have taken it upon themselves to have a restriction on that road especially
through the (I-71 tunnel)," Sheehy said.
Diana Martin of the Ohio Department of Transportation said the widening
is necessary for the
economic stability of Greater Cincinnati and other communities that rely on I-75 and I-71 to
transport goods and keep the economy rolling.
Growing congestion prompted Kentucky to eliminate emergency lanes in 1986,
from three lanes in each direction to four. But now disabled cars and trucks and other
vehicles forced to stop behind them are at the mercy of traffic that may or may not slow down
or change lanes in time to avoid a collision.
Covington police say that may have been what happened Monday morning, when
smashed into the back of a car witnesses said was driving slowly without lights.
Todd Whatley, 41, of Covington died instantly, his car crushed and partly
under the truck.
Police are still investigating but speculate he had mechanical trouble and had no place to
"Had the vehicle been out on an emergency strip, maybe the truck wouldn't
have hit it,"
Specialist George Russell said.
For the safety of officers and other motorists, Covington police won't
stop speeders or
reckless drivers until they have crossed the bridge, he said. "It's unsafe for anybody to
actually stop on that bridge."
Heavy traffic volume coupled with the absence of emergency lanes has resulted
accident rate on the bridge that exceeds the Kentucky interstate rate by 750 percent,
according to the 1998 study.
Structurally, the bridge is still safe but aging. If major repairs aren't
made, the steel in the
bridge's underside and approaches will eventually grow too fatigued to be safely crossed,
"The biggest problems would be in the lower chord, the steel on the under
side of the bridge.
It's just like taking a paper clip and wiggling it back and forth a couple times. Eventually you
have a fracture. We would have to at some point strengthen and stiffen that lower chord.
That's where we would see the most stress," Rust said.
"It's not worn out now. We're just afraid that over the next 20 or 25 years
it will wear out. It
either has to be replaced or supplemented before that happens," Rust said.
• What could be done: The new study, which is being led by the Kentucky
Cabinet, will identify six options for replacing or renovating the bridge. The options are
expected to be similar to those in a 1998 study, including:
• Replacing the bridge on the same site with a new five-lane, double-deck bridge.
• Building a new five-lane, double-deck bridge just west of the existing bridge.
• Building two new five-lane, single-deck bridges just west and east of the existing bridge.
• Building a companion bridge and rehabilitating the existing bridge.
• Building a companion bridge and replacing the existing bridge.
• Building a new bridge far west of the existing bridge. This would
require miles of new
lanes parallel to Freeman Avenue in Cincinnati and running roughly parallel to the Ohio River
and I-75 in Ludlow and Covington until reconnecting with existing lanes around Kyles Lane
in Fort Wright.
Rust said other options may be added as the study progresses. The consultants
the options down to two or three by the end of the 30-month study.
Engineers will also conduct the first full study of the soundness of the bridge since 1985.
"We want to see with the current traffic and projections how long before
the Brent Spence is
structurally deficient," Rust said.
Finding that out will help planners decide whether it's more cost efficient
to tear down the
bridge or bolster it for more use.
The next step after the study is an environmental assessment and additional
work with local,
state and federal authorities to iron out the best plan and to fund it. Even the routine
environmental study carries the risk of complication -- though far from pristine, the area is
near the habitat of the Indiana Bat, an endangered species that roosts in dead trees, for
Other considerations will include "social justice" issues assessing whether
acquisitions and traffic pattern changes disproportionately affect low-income or minority
Rust said the best-case scenario would mean starting construction in five
or six years -- 2007
or 2008. Sam Beverage, the state's chief engineer in Northern Kentucky, said it's not
unusual for the process to extend to six to eight years.
With construction lasting three to four years, it could be eight to 12
years before the new
bridge is finished.
However, project boosters led by a team assembled by the Northern Kentucky
Commerce have a more ambitious timeline in mind that would have the project budgeted in
the federal six-year transportation plan by fall, and have the project completed by 2009.
Beverage plans to save time and money by running many components of the
The environmental impact study, for example, could begin in 2004, midway
feasibility study. Before the environmental component is finished, the final design could
The engineering feasibility study starts in February with the premise that
configuration is chosen will result in five lanes in each directions instead of four.
Widening by one lane in each direction is expected to upgrade rush-hour
traffic to about a
grade E -- better than failing, but worse than a D.
State and local transportation officials can change their minds and pursue
more lanes if they
discover an extra lane won't even pull the bridge out of an F grade, but they appear
resigned to creating a slight improvement in traffic flow.
"The outlook for the level of service in the entire I-75 corridor is not
much better," said Judi
Craig, I-75 corridor manager at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
"We're in a situation where to do nothing (with Brent Spence Bridge) would be absolutely
devastating, but we need to at least improve it to keep it viable."
Planners also will focus efforts on keeping traffic moving during construction
to keep the
A traffic management plan completed in 1997 predicts closing lanes on the
mean "several hours" more peak traffic congestion a day. Volume on Clay Wade Bailey
Bridge, just east of Brent Spence, is expected to soar 149 percent.
Temporarily closing Brent Spence would mean traffic on Clay Wade Bailey
more than 350 percent, according to the study.
No options are off the table for diverting traffic, including barring 18-wheel
trucks from using
Brent Spence by diverting them to I-275 or I-471.
• Who pays: While the bridge's importance to interstate commerce
and travel is plain to the
region's residents and businesses, securing $400 million or more in federal funds to get the
project done is by no means a foregone conclusion.
The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce will launch its lobbying effort
to secure federal
funds on its annual trip to Washington in February. About 70 business and government
leaders from Northern Kentucky are expected to make the trip.
"While we know that (the final plan) won't be done for a while, we think
we have to sensitize
people to the urgency of this project. We have to have everyone lined up to be supportive,"
said Gary Toebben, chamber president.
"That effort will take cooperation from everyone in the Greater Cincinnati
area and all of our
neighbors who live near I-75 and I-71 throughout Ohio and Kentucky."
The chamber and others will solicit help from all three congressmen representing
and Northern Kentucky, all four senators from Ohio and Kentucky, plus other key legislators
like Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee
"It will be a tough sell," Toebben said. "We will have to make the case
that we have no
Stan Lampe, Ashland Inc. communications director and volunteer chairman
of the chamber
group headed to Washington, said the Republican sweep into Senate control bodes well for
funding the project.
"With Senator (Jim) Bunning on the finance committee and Sen. (Mitch) McConnell
appropriations committee, virtually every nickel and dime that is spent in Washington will pass
through their committees," Lampe said. "The Brent Spence isn't safe, and we all know that.
We believe that our congressmen and our senators will respond to our community's request."
U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Westwood, said he's optimistic about the chances
"but we're all going to have to agree this is the, or one of the, significant issues for the
Lampe and other chamber representatives will push to get funding for bridge
and studies into the six-year transportation plan, which will be voted on in 2003.
He expects to know by September whether the money is earmarked.
Rust said the funding formula will likely mean the federal government pays
80 percent to 90
percent of construction costs, with a local match of 10 percent to 20 percent.
The local match is likely to be split 50-50 by Ohio and Kentucky state governments.
• Other voices:
Widening the bridge or building a new one is particularly difficult in a crowded urban area.
To the west of Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati is Cinergy Corp.'s electricity
serves much of downtown Cincinnati, and historical structures like Longworth Hall. Any
expansion or new bridge to the west will have to be done with the Cinergy plant in mind.
Kathy Meinke, Cinergy spokeswoman, said the energy company has not taken
a position on
the project at this early stage.
Joe Vogel, Cincinnati's principal transportation design engineer, said
the city anticipates the
best site for a new bridge or expanded bridge would be west of the current location.
Cincinnati will also make sure construction doesn't undo years of work
to the Fort Washington
Way restructuring that took local traffic off the I-71 pass through downtown.
In Covington, the five-year-old Hampton Inn lies just west of the bridge
along with other
nearby homes and businesses.
"We want to make sure that we save that (hotel)," Covington City Engineer
Hughes said the city's two top priorities will be ensuring that traffic
is maintained reasonably
well during construction and that property acquisition is handled properly.
Environmentalists want any bridge expansion plan to include space to add
lines as a more environmentally friendly alternative to more space for pollution-causing cars.
Glen Brand, who heads Sierra Club's Cincinnati office, said it would be premature to exclude
rail planning at this stage for Brent Spence.
"We need a safe bridge, and that's the top priority. The two issues here
are safety and cost
efficiency. That would include planning for a future rail line across the river. We don't want to
go back and waste transportation dollars," Brand said.
Beverage said including light rail was considered in earlier stages but
is not part of the
current plan for Brent Spence. He said other bridges including Clay Wade Bailey may be
considered should efforts to build a light-rail system revive after the Nov. 5 rejection of a
Hamilton County tax levy to fund it.
Publication Date: 01-25-2003