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A Bridge Worth Talking About

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed are those of the individuals who have written this article and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) or CNU Midwest.

Brent Spence Bridge from Kentucky, Photo Used with Permission from Caryl Hefley

Nationwide, the conversation about urban interstates focuses on the need to downsize, but when it comes to the Brent Spence Bridge here in Greater Cincinnati, we’re still rushing pell-mell along a kneejerk, unimaginative route – pushing for a dramatic widening that will do more harm than good, especially when it comes to the city at the southern terminus of the span, Covington.

The 16-lane solution still being touted in the media is far too big for what’s needed, doesn’t fix congestion, requires billions in additional investment, risks regional icons like the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, and – as far as Covington is concerned – not only hurts our businesses and residents but interferes with our economic growth and that of the entire Northern Kentucky region.

Let me explain:

Size & congestion: The need for a 16-lane span was debunked by the 2017 Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Analysis. The proposed new bridge(s) are overdesigned by 30% and simply moves the congestion problem further south into Kentucky. How? The plan calls for 8 southbound lanes crossing the bridges but reverts to the current 4 lanes just south of Kyles Lane, where the hill is already congested during the evening rush hour. Getting to work will be easier; getting home will be harder.

Footprint: The current bridge has 42 feet of pavement. The plan proposes to add an adjacent bridge with 128 feet of pavement, more than quadrupling the landing area in Covington. Imagine a bridge complex that’s four times the width of the current bridge. I-75 did immense damage to Covington; this would be far worse.

Exit: The massive rebuild treats Covington as a destination like an afterthought, reducing access to Covington from I-75 southbound to a single lane that has to be accessed way back at the Cincinnati Museum Center. In other words, we suffer all of the pain without any gain.

Designed in a vacuum: The proposed plan fails to fix a fundamental flaw in the design of the region’s traffic network: all of the traffic is funneled into one major route. As the ODOT Brent Spence project manager acknowledged years ago: “We could continue to build lanes on 75, but they will fill because of the nature of the traffic network in the region.”

Financing and Diversion: It’s still not clear how much financial help the President’s infrastructure plan will bring, but if the proposed tolls survive, we’re in trouble. A Kentucky Transportation Cabinet study projects 77,000 cars each day will leave I-75 and use alternative routes to avoid paying tolls. That exact scenario came to pass in Louisville, where – after the Kennedy/Lincoln Bridge was tolled – traffic fell from 125,700 vehicles in 2013 to 64,200 in 2018. That’s a 49% reduction. That’s why people joke that the easiest way to solve the congestion problem on the Brent Spence would be to skip the construction and toll the bridge.

Firsthand experience: The fiery truck crash that shut down the Brent Spence for six weeks late in 2020 taught Covington firsthand the heavy cost of diversion. The heavy volume of traffic seeking following their mapping apps and seeking alternate routes gridlocked Covington’s streets and damaged our business environment, especially in the MainStrasse Village neighborhood and business district.

Icon jeopardized: Covington was forced to shut down the nearby Suspension Bridge during the Brent Spence closure because the sudden vehicle load far exceeded the capacity of this famed engineering marvel and so many heavy trucks ignored the weight limit designed to protect it. Diversion would more than double traffic on the Suspension Bridge. It can’t handle that.

Equity: The tolling plan proposed for those crossing the river is far from equitable. Northern Kentuckians using I-75 to access downtown Cincinnati will pay the toll. But Ohioans using the most expensive part of the project (from north of the Western Hills viaduct to the river) will pay no toll. This is hardly fair. If tolls are going to be part of this project, there should be no free riders and no transferring of the cost of Ohio improvements to Kentucky residents.

Construction impact: In the last five years, Covington’s businesses have suffered through the impact of three projects on the Brent Spence: the 2017 resurfacing, the 2020 fireball reconstruction, and the 2021 repainting now underway. Each project has lasted a few months. During the construction of $2.6 billion solution, the 4th and 5th Street interchanges would be closed for up to 3½ years, during which traffic trying to avoid construction would flood Dixie Highway, ML King Jr. Boulevard/12th Street, Pike Street, and Main Street.

Business survival: Thus nearby businesses would lose both ways – no easy access, too much through traffic. Will the hotels, companies like the Radisson, the Lexus dealership, Corken Steel, Cincinnati Closet, all the fast-food restaurants and the MainStrasse businesses survive when the primary access is closed and the secondary access routes are gridlocked? That’s unclear, especially as there are no plans to offer compensation for those affected businesses.

In short, Covington continues to be disappointed in the lack of imagination and creativity in addressing the region’s transportation needs. Circumstances have changed in the 20 years since the current plan was initiated. We ask highway planners to revisit their assumptions based on current circumstances and data and re-plan the project accordingly. We ask that they address our specific concerns and be transparent about the financing mechanisms required.

They need to come to the table with a plan that’s good for us all, so we together can advocate for an improved transportation network for Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati.

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