Bridging the Divide in Brent Spence Replacement Debate

by John Gregory | 07/01/14 3:32 PM

When Covington Mayor Sherry Carran calls for regional cooperation to address the aging Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River, her voice reveals a mix of frustration and exasperation.

"We need to come together and have a healthy productive dialog about ‘do we need a bridge?’… and what's the best way to proceed?" Carran says. "Until we have that, we are going to be in limbo."

On Monday's edition of Kentucky Tonight, Carran joined a panel of northern Kentuckians to discuss options for a new bridge to Cincinnati, and the potential impacts for commuters and communities in that region.

Safety and Structural Issues
Named for a former Kentucky congressman from Newport, the Brent Spence Bridge opened in November 1963. The federal government has classified the structure, which carries eight lanes of I-75 and I-71 traffic between Kentucky and Ohio, as functionally obsolete. That means it doesn't meet current design standards for things like traffic volume, lane width, and safety factors.

Brent Cooper, interim president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, says the bridge was designed to handle 80,000 vehicles per day, but now carries more than 180,000 a day. Projections put daily traffic at 250,000 vehicles within 10 years. He describes the route as a critical artery of commerce from Michigan to Florida. As one example, Cooper cites the bridge as carrying 90 percent of the supply chain used by the Toyota plant in Georgetown.

Yet that traffic volume has created serious safety issues.

"You are three to five times more likely to have an accident on that stretch than anywhere else in Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana," Cooper reports. "It's not that the bridge is going to fall into the river, the issue is that it's a dangerous corridor."

The Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River from northern Kentucky to Cincinnati.(Photo by PunkToad via Flickr)

The Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River from northern Kentucky to Cincinnati.
(Photo by PunkToad via Flickr)

Traffic Patterns and Urban Development
While the Brent Spence Bridge is structurally sound, regional planners want to ease the traffic load by building a second crossing alongside the current bridge. Attorney Brian Ellerman with the Toebben Companies, a local real estate development firm, contends that location, just downstream of the existing span, wasn't selected to address current traffic concerns.

"It's more related to Cincinnati's long term goals of redeveloping their west end," Ellerman says. "That is a very good idea, that's going to work well for them, but they are basically making this all about redeveloping that corridor on the backs of northern Kentuckians because all of the benefit will be on the Cincinnati side and all of the cost will be on the northern Kentucky side."

The Chamber of Commerce's Brent Cooper disagrees with that interpretation of the project. He argues that northern Kentuckians will realize substantial benefits through shorter commute times.

"We're already getting tolled: It's a toll in fuel prices. We're already being taxed: It's a tax of time. Let's remedy that, let's start building bridges," Cooper declares.

Ellerman also opposes the current plan because new approaches to the bridges would cut the city of Covington in half. He argues a better solution would be to remove I-71 traffic from the corridor by building a new loop for it around southern Kenton and Campbell Counties and crossing the river to the east of Cincinnati. Ellerman says that would open more acreage to new development.

Mayor Carran counters the notion that the current plan would limit access to Covington neighborhoods, saying it's a scare tactic used by those opposed to the bridge project. She says planners have worked to address those issues in the best way possible based on the current location of the Brent Spence Bridge.

Paying for a New Bridge
Regional leaders are strongly divided on how to fund the $2.6 billion project, especially given limited federal resources. The Northern Kentucky Chamber has promoted public-private partnerships as a more economical way of building the bridge. Although legislation allowing such partnerships passed the Kentucky General Assembly earlier this year, Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the bill.

The more likely funding mechanism would be to add tolls to the bridges, which the chamber as well as Ohio state officials support. "What we're proposing is that a dollar toll can lead to a $4 dollar savings in gas and 30 minutes of savings to be home with your kids at night," Cooper says.

The idea of tolling has faced stiff opposition, especially among residents and some lawmakers in northern Kentucky. "The toll is a non-starter," says Covington Mayor Pro Tem and Commissioner Steve Frank. "Constituents would prefer a new bridge, they don't want to pay a toll to get it."

Frank contends tolls will be higher than the $1 amount that's usually discussed. He says that increasing the gasoline tax or instituting a tax based on vehicle miles driven by a commuter would be a more efficient way of paying for the Brent Spence project and other transportation infrastructure needs. He also argues that many drivers will shift their commutes to other local bridges that aren't tolled, which will bring unwanted congestion to other parts of northern Kentucky.

A Time for Action
After more than a decade of debate on the issue, Covington Mayor Sherry Carran and others in the region are eager for some kind of action.

She says doing nothing will result in stagnation for the region: safety concerns with the current bridge will get worse, and business and home owners in the region will grow increasingly frustrated about the uncertainty of their investments.

"With a new bridge, a bridge that's well designed with good connectivity into the city, we will prosper," Carran says. "We will prosper along with Cincinnati, and along with our river cities, and hopefully the rest of the region."

Watch the full Kentucky Tonight discussion.