The Brent Spence:  It won't last forever
Cincinnati Post 1/25/03
                         By Bob Driehaus
                         Post staff reporter

                       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
                         Kentucky.

                         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
                         construction begins.

                         "A project of this magnitude would normally take as much money as the region normally gets
                         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
                         done."

                         Bunning is prepared to push for the bridge money, "but that is a big chunk of change,"
                         Deuser said. "But it helps that the bridge spans two states."

                         The study will be conducted by Burgess & Niple engineers, pending completion of contract
                         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," Rust said.
                         "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 has evolved
                         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
                         going."

                         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, expanding it
                         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 a semi
                         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
                         pull off.

                         "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 in an
                         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,
                         Rust said.

                         "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 Transportation
                         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 will 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 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
                         example.

                         Other considerations will include "social justice" issues assessing whether property
                         acquisitions and traffic pattern changes disproportionately affect low-income or minority
                         residents.

                         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 Chamber of
                         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 project
                         simultaneously.

                         The environmental impact study, for example, could begin in 2004, midway through the
                         feasibility study. Before the environmental component is finished, the final design could
                         begin.

                         The engineering feasibility study starts in February with the premise that whatever
                         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
                         economy running.

                         A traffic management plan completed in 1997 predicts closing lanes on the bridge would
                         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 would explode
                         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 Cincinnati
                         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
                         on Transportation.

                         "It will be a tough sell," Toebben said. "We will have to make the case that we have no
                         alternative."

                         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 on the
                         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 of funding,
                         "but we're all going to have to agree this is the, or one of the, significant issues for the
                         region."

                         Lampe and other chamber representatives will push to get funding for bridge construction
                         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 substation that
                         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 Terry Hughes
                         said.

                         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 passenger rail
                         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
 
 
 

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