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 equivalentof 60 days of time
every day because of gridlock.
• Inspectors describe wear and tear: Left untouched, they say, thelower "chord'' or frame
of the bridge will eventually fracture like a paper clip wiggled back andforth.
• Police describe horrifying accidents: A fatal wreck this week inwhich a semi obliterated a
Dodge Shadow witnesses say was having car trouble might have been avoidedif 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 replacingthe Brent
Spence Bridge, he puts it in this perspective:
"It's one of those once-in-a-career projects, probably the biggest to comearound here for the
20 or 30 years I'll be here," Rust said.
The project -- which begins in earnest next month with the commencementof a $2 million,
2*-year study -- will be a financial and engineering challenge, eventuallyrequiring $425
million in 2002 dollars, about a decade of planning and constructing anda creative strategy
to avoid disastrous rush-hour gridlock while detouring or restricting traffic.
Transportation officials expect the cost of the Brent Spence Bridge projectwill require the
federal government to double Greater Cincinnati's allotment of transportationfunds the year
"A project of this magnitude would normally take as much money as the regionnormally gets
for all its projects. You're talking about going to the U.S. Congress andsaying 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 lotof 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 chunkof change,"
Deuser said. "But it helps that the bridge spans two states."
The study will be conducted by Burgess & Niple engineers, pending completionof contract
negotiations with the firm.
Construction will take three to four years and won't begin for at leastfive 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 vehiclesa 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 isalready 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,"Rust said.
"Oftentimes in rush hour we hit a level of service F, which means trafficcomes to a standstill
and there's no movement. That can vary greatly anywhere from a minute to20 minutes."
Wally Whalen said the commute from his Florence home to his job in Woodlawnhas evolved
into a 50-minute commute in the 27 years he's been driving it. Trafficused to start slowing
around Fifth Street in Covington; now it slows around Buttermilk Pike inFort 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 acrossthe bridge.
"Trucks take a longer time to get going and once traffic starts to openup 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 routesaround the crowded
bridge during rush hours, said Ned Sheehy, president of Frankfort-basedKentucky Motor
Transport Association, a trade organization for the trucking industry.
"Some trucking companies will avoid it at all costs, especially duringrush hour. Some
companies have taken it upon themselves to have a restriction on that roadespecially
through the (I-71 tunnel)," Sheehy said.
Diana Martin of the Ohio Department of Transportation said the wideningis necessary for the
economic stability of Greater Cincinnati and other communities that relyon I-75 and I-71 to
transport goods and keep the economy rolling.
Growing congestion prompted Kentucky to eliminate emergency lanes in 1986,expanding it
from three lanes in each direction to four. But now disabled cars and trucksand other
vehicles forced to stop behind them are at the mercy of traffic that mayor may not slow down
or change lanes in time to avoid a collision.
Covington police say that may have been what happened Monday morning, whena semi
smashed into the back of a car witnesses said was driving slowly withoutlights.
Todd Whatley, 41, of Covington died instantly, his car crushed and partlyunder the truck.
Police are still investigating but speculate he had mechanical troubleand had no place to
"Had the vehicle been out on an emergency strip, maybe the truck wouldn'thave hit it,"
Specialist George Russell said.
For the safety of officers and other motorists, Covington police won'tstop speeders or
reckless drivers until they have crossed the bridge, he said. "It's unsafefor anybody to
actually stop on that bridge."
Heavy traffic volume coupled with the absence of emergency lanes has resultedin an
accident rate on the bridge that exceeds the Kentucky interstate rate by750 percent,
according to the 1998 study.
Structurally, the bridge is still safe but aging. If major repairs aren'tmade, the steel in the
bridge's underside and approaches will eventually grow too fatigued tobe safely crossed,
"The biggest problems would be in the lower chord, the steel on the underside of the bridge.
It's just like taking a paper clip and wiggling it back and forth a coupletimes. Eventually you
have a fracture. We would have to at some point strengthen and stiffenthat 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 yearsit 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 KentuckyTransportation
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-deckbridge.
• Building a new five-lane, double-deck bridge just west of the existingbridge.
• Building two new five-lane, single-deck bridges just west and eastof 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 wouldrequire miles of new
lanes parallel to Freeman Avenue in Cincinnati and running roughly parallelto the Ohio River
and I-75 in Ludlow and Covington until reconnecting with existing lanesaround Kyles Lane
in Fort Wright.
Rust said other options may be added as the study progresses. The consultantswill whittle
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 thebridge since 1985.
"We want to see with the current traffic and projections how long beforethe Brent Spence is
structurally deficient," Rust said.
Finding that out will help planners decide whether it's more cost efficientto tear down the
bridge or bolster it for more use.
The next step after the study is an environmental assessment and additionalwork 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 frompristine, the area is
near the habitat of the Indiana Bat, an endangered species that roostsin dead trees, for
Other considerations will include "social justice" issues assessing whetherproperty
acquisitions and traffic pattern changes disproportionately affect low-incomeor minority
Rust said the best-case scenario would mean starting construction in fiveor 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 12years before the new
bridge is finished.
However, project boosters led by a team assembled by the Northern KentuckyChamber of
Commerce have a more ambitious timeline in mind that would have the projectbudgeted in
the federal six-year transportation plan by fall, and have the projectcompleted by 2009.
Beverage plans to save time and money by running many components of theproject
The environmental impact study, for example, could begin in 2004, midwaythrough the
feasibility study. Before the environmental component is finished, thefinal design could
The engineering feasibility study starts in February with the premise thatwhatever
configuration is chosen will result in five lanes in each directions insteadof four.
Widening by one lane in each direction is expected to upgrade rush-hourtraffic to about a
grade E -- better than failing, but worse than a D.
State and local transportation officials can change their minds and pursuemore lanes if they
discover an extra lane won't even pull the bridge out of an F grade, butthey appear
resigned to creating a slight improvement in traffic flow.
"The outlook for the level of service in the entire I-75 corridor is notmuch better," said Judi
Craig, I-75 corridor manager at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Councilof Governments.
"We're in a situation where to do nothing (with Brent Spence Bridge) wouldbe absolutely
devastating, but we need to at least improve it to keep it viable."
Planners also will focus efforts on keeping traffic moving during constructionto keep the
A traffic management plan completed in 1997 predicts closing lanes on thebridge would
mean "several hours" more peak traffic congestion a day. Volume on ClayWade Bailey
Bridge, just east of Brent Spence, is expected to soar 149 percent.
Temporarily closing Brent Spence would mean traffic on Clay Wade Baileywould explode
more than 350 percent, according to the study.
No options are off the table for diverting traffic, including barring 18-wheeltrucks from using
Brent Spence by diverting them to I-275 or I-471.
• Who pays: While the bridge's importance to interstate commerceand travel is plain to the
region's residents and businesses, securing $400 million or more in federalfunds to get the
project done is by no means a foregone conclusion.
The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce will launch its lobbying effortto secure federal
funds on its annual trip to Washington in February. About 70 business andgovernment
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 thinkwe have to sensitize
people to the urgency of this project. We have to have everyone lined upto be supportive,"
said Gary Toebben, chamber president.
"That effort will take cooperation from everyone in the Greater Cincinnatiarea 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 representingCincinnati
and Northern Kentucky, all four senators from Ohio and Kentucky, plus otherkey legislators
like Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, Ky., chairman of the House AppropriationsSubcommittee
"It will be a tough sell," Toebben said. "We will have to make the casethat we have no
Stan Lampe, Ashland Inc. communications director and volunteer chairmanof the chamber
group headed to Washington, said the Republican sweep into Senate controlbodes well for
funding the project.
"With Senator (Jim) Bunning on the finance committee and Sen. (Mitch) McConnellon the
appropriations committee, virtually every nickel and dime that is spentin Washington will pass
through their committees," Lampe said. "The Brent Spence isn't safe, andwe all know that.
We believe that our congressmen and our senators will respond to our community'srequest."
U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Westwood, said he's optimistic about the chancesof funding,
"but we're all going to have to agree this is the, or one of the, significantissues for the
Lampe and other chamber representatives will push to get funding for bridgeconstruction
and studies into the six-year transportation plan, which will be votedon in 2003.
He expects to know by September whether the money is earmarked.
Rust said the funding formula will likely mean the federal government pays80 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 stategovernments.
• Other voices:
Widening the bridge or building a new one is particularly difficult ina crowded urban area.
To the west of Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati is Cinergy Corp.'s electricitysubstation that
serves much of downtown Cincinnati, and historical structures like LongworthHall. Any
expansion or new bridge to the west will have to be done with the Cinergyplant in mind.
Kathy Meinke, Cinergy spokeswoman, said the energy company has not takena position on
the project at this early stage.
Joe Vogel, Cincinnati's principal transportation design engineer, saidthe city anticipates the
best site for a new bridge or expanded bridge would be west of the currentlocation.
Cincinnati will also make sure construction doesn't undo years of workto 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 bridgealong with other
nearby homes and businesses.
"We want to make sure that we save that (hotel)," Covington City EngineerTerry Hughes
Hughes said the city's two top priorities will be ensuring that trafficis maintained reasonably
well during construction and that property acquisition is handled properly.
Environmentalists want any bridge expansion plan to include space to addpassenger rail
lines as a more environmentally friendly alternative to more space forpollution-causing cars.
Glen Brand, who heads Sierra Club's Cincinnati office, said it would bepremature to exclude
rail planning at this stage for Brent Spence.
"We need a safe bridge, and that's the top priority. The two issues hereare safety and cost
efficiency. That would include planning for a future rail line across theriver. We don't want to
go back and waste transportation dollars," Brand said.
Beverage said including light rail was considered in earlier stages butis not part of the
current plan for Brent Spence. He said other bridges including Clay WadeBailey may be
considered should efforts to build a light-rail system revive after theNov. 5 rejection of a
Hamilton County tax levy to fund it.
Publication Date: 01-25-2003