Brent Spence Bridge (Interstates 71 and 75)

The Brent Spence Bridge carries Interstates 71 and 75 over the Ohio River between Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Brent Spence Bridge was first envisioned in the 1950’s as a high speed Ohio River crossing connecting Cincinnati to Kentucky. Several alignments were studied, including one parallel to the Cincinnati Southern Railroad Bridge in Ludlow.In April 1956, a site in at the mouth of Willow Creek in west Covington was chosen for a bridge site after Covington, Cincinnati and state highway officials came to an agreement on the location.9 The new bridge was projected to cost $12.57 million and take two years to construct. The United States Bureau of Public Roads gave final approval of the alignment, 800 feet wets of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Bridge, in October.

The high speed crossing envisioned included three lanes in each direction, a single or dual deck and a cantilever truss or suspension design.9 The duel deck cantilever truss bridge was later chosen with design work completed in 1959.7 Kentucky officials hoped that the new bridge would be open to traffic by 1960.

The first sketch of the new Ohio River Bridge was published in the July 9, 1960 edition of the Kentucky Post.Actual construction of the bridge began in January 1961 but was halted shortly after a water line was discovered at one of the pier locations. Pilings for the piers began again in February and the approach piers in Kentucky was completed by March. It was not until January 1962 that bids for the remainder of the approach superstructure were let. Meanwhile, the superstructure over the Ohio River was being erected.

On November 20, 1963, the Kentucky Post noted that the bridge would be named for retired northern Kentucky Congressman Brent Spence.9 The then-88-year-old Spence had served in Congress for 32 years and was a longtime Fort Thomas resident who was living in the Sinton Hotel in Cincinnati at the time.

The Brent Spence Bridge opened to traffic on November 25, 1963.1 9 18 It’s opening came with little celebration or fanfare due to President Kennedy’s assassination just three days prior.

In 1970, Interstate 71 was completed between Louisville and Interstate 75, and the highway was co-signed with Interstate 75 over the Ohio River.Tremendous suburban residential growth south and north of Cincinnati, coupled with multitudes of commercial and industrial development, led to rapid traffic growth on the Brent Spence Bridge. In 1986, the bridge approaches, which were two-lanes, were widened to three-lanes and the shoulder on the bridge was eliminated to provide four through-lanes to alleviate severe congestion leading up and on the span as part of the “Death Hill” reconstruction project.4 The traffic lanes were also narrowed from 12 feet to 11 feet.26

In early 1990, work to repaint the bridge began.6 By August, the first problem arose in the painting process. State environmental inspectors suspended the bridge sandblasting to remove the lead paint after an air pollution monitor in Covington detects high levels of lead. As a result, the state purchased special steel netting to catch paint from drifting into the city, which increased the cost of the repainting.4

The original estimate of $3.5 million 5 had increased to $5.9 millionby the time the project was done in July 1991.4 Crews were then ordered by state environmental inspectors to excavate up to 32 tons of lead-contaminated sandblast debris that workers had buried along Interstate 75 a year prior. The sandblasted grit had been deposited in pits southwest of the Jefferson Avenue interchange and at Ninth Street and Willow Run. The state later paid a $20,000 fine for violating environmental regulations.

Replacement

A 1995 report by American Consulting Engineers of Lexington, Kentucky concluded that the Brent Spence Bridge would need to be replaced by 2007.7 The report noted that the bridge was carrying heavier trucks than those that existed when the span opened 32 years prior, and that it the span was fast approaching the maximum 160,000 vehicles per day (vpd) that it could handle without total gridlock. The bridge was designed for 75,000vpd and carried 139,000vpd in 1991,7148,614vpd in 2003 8 and 150,000vpd in 2008.10 It also concluded that strengthening the bridge to handle future traffic would be too costly to justify.

Planners with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) also concluded in 1999 that the Brent Spence Bridge would last another 15 to 20 years based on the combination of heavy trucks and automobile traffic. Another contractor, Burgess & Niple, Limited, however, refuted that the bridge was not suffering from any ill effects.2 In addition, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) countered that the bridge could hold its current traffic load “indefinitely” as long as the crossing was properly maintained over the next 16 years.28

In addition to the high traffic load, the U.S. Department of Transportation released data that reported the Brent Spence Bridge crash rate between 1995 and 2003 was one of the highest of the nation’s “functionally deficient” bridges.17 The span between those years averaged 22.8 wrecks per lane mile each year.

Pushing forward with the replacement project, on July 28, 2005, Congress authorized $45.6 million to study alternatives for a Brent Spence Bridge replacement or supplement.25 The project study area extended 2800 feet into Kentucky (to milepost 189) and 1,500 feet into Ohio (milepost 2) along Interstate 75.2

By April 2007, five alternatives were being considered, 19 20 24

Alternatives

  • Alternative 1: A new bridge about 1,000 feet west of the Brent Spence Bridge with five lanes in each direction that would carry Interstate 75. The existing Brent Spence Bridge would be renovated and would carry Interstate 71 and local traffic. This option would displace about 102 single-family residences, 58 multi-family residences and 23 commercial properties in Northern Kentucky. Total displaced: 183.
  • Alternative 2: A new bridge about 1,000feet west of the Brent Spence Bridge with seven lanes in each direction would carry Interstate 71 and Interstate 75 traffic. The existing Brent Spence Bridge would be renovated and handle local traffic. This option would displace about 102 single-family residences, 58 multi-family residences and 23 commercial properties in Northern Kentucky. Total displaced: 183.
  • Alternative 3: A new bridge would be built adjacent to the Brent Spence Bridge with five lanes in each direction that would carry Interstate 75 traffic while a renovated Brent Spence Bridge would handle Interstate 71 and local traffic. This option would displace about 72 single-family residences, 32 multi-family residences and 19 commercial properties in Northern Kentucky. Total displaced: 123.
  • Alternative 4: The Brent Spence Bridge would be torn down and a new dual deck bridge would be built to carry five lanes of Interstate 75 traffic in each direction on the top and three lanes in each direction on the bottom for Interstate 71 and local traffic. This alternative would displace about 82 single-family residences, 32 multi-family residences and 19 commercial properties in Northern Kentucky. Total displaced: 133.
  • Alternative 5: Two new bridges would be built on either side of the Brent Spence Bridge, one with five lanes for northbound Interstate 75 traffic and the other with five lanes for southbound Interstate 75 traffic, with a rehabilitated Brent Spence Bridge carrying three lanes of Interstate 71 and local traffic in each direction. This alternative would displace about 72 single-family residences, 24 multi-family residences and 18 commercial properties in Northern Kentucky. Total displaced: 114.

The least expensive proposal was a hybrid of Alternate 3 and Alternate 5 that would require property acquisition valued between $25.8 million to $28.5 million. Alternate 2 was the most expensive that would require property acquisition valued between $45.3 million and $48.5 million.21 The impact to Covington would come to several historic neighborhoods with young professionals, life-long residents and a business district.19

The federal government stated that adequate funding did not exist to construct either a replacement Brent Spence Bridge or a supplement structure, and that tolls would be required.14 Even with heavy state contributions, the bridge would require tolling or other creative funding sources to complete the project. Northern Kentucky State Representative Arnold Simpson called the proposed toll an “urban bridge tax,” citing the proposed tolling options for the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville, another “mega project.” He was the only dissenting vote, as a House committee overwhelmingly passed a bill, 25-1, that would establish a statewide financing authority that could borrow money and levy tolls to pay for large infrastructure projects.16

A group of local officials from northern Kentucky and southwestern Ohio banded together under the moniker “Bridge Builders” after being urged to do so by U.S. Senators George Voinovich of Ohio and Jim Bunning of Kentucky.12 The goal was to accelerate the selection of a recommended preferred alternative of a new Brent Spence Bridge.

By December, the estimated cost of a new Brent Spence Bridge had risen to $3 billion 10 from $1 billion in 2005.27 The new estimates were adjusted for inflation over the life of the project set at nine years, whereas the old estimates were based on the value of the dollar when the estimates were made.23 The new estimates also took into account the project scope’s increase, the skyrocketing cost of concrete and steel and the higher cost of fuel.

It was estimated that Kentucky and Ohio would need to chip in $600 million each, with the federal government covering the remainder. In addition, consensus by most greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky leaders revealed that a Queensgate alignment was the least favored, and that tolling the span was out of the question.10 13 Covington leaders desired a span touching down between Fifth and Ninth streets, whereas Cincinnati leaders desired a footprint as minimal as possible.13 Officials feared that the toll booths would increase the project’s cost and congest traffic, despite technological advances such as open-road, high-speed tolling.22 Other states and countries utilize cameras, satellite-tracking systems and photography that eliminate the need to stopping. In addition, officials feared that it would force Greater Cincinnati motorists to bear a disproportionate share of the cost for the bridge.13

Officials also noted that while early discussions on the Brent Spence Bridge revolved around the replacement of the existing span, the existing span was in reasonably good condition and still had 60 years of life remaining.11 A new parallel span, constructed immediately west of the existing bridge, could slash the project’s cost, expedite its construction and protect economic interests on both sides of the river. In addition, they stated that other alternate sites could undercut Cincinnati’s plans for redevelopment in Queensgate, and leave Covington with no direct southbound access from the new bridge.11 30

According to a report released by the “Bridge Builders,” a bridge leading through Covington would lead to a loss of $22.5 in property values and indirect economic loss.12 The replacement or parallel construction of the bridge would save the region $748 million in 2005 dollars, including $684 million in savings on shipping that would be derived from a reduction in traffic congestion. Motorists would see a time reduction valued at $51 million a year.

On March 2, 2009, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce reported that the Brent Spence Bridge cold receive $800 million in the 2010 federal highway authorization legislation that would go towards the construction of a parallel span.29 31 The legislation is a process that occurs once every six years.31

On April 18, regional officials and transportation planners in Ohio and Kentucky stated that they were poised to recommend constructing a second span over the Ohio immediately west of the Brent Spence Bridge.30 Under the proposal, the Brent Spence would carry Interstate 71 and local traffic, would the new crossing would carry Interstate 75.

Two days later, the Brent Spence Bridge Advisory Committee, formed by transportation officials from Kentucky and Ohio, unveiled its final conceptual proposal that called for a new bridge just west of the existing Brent Spence.30 31The project would affect the former Harriet Beecher Stowe School building and Longworth Hall in Cincinnati.31

Under a best case scenario, a final alignment could be chosen by August 2009, although final analysis and environmental impact reports could take up to two years to complete.15 Some of the environmental reviews could be streamlined in some of the forthcoming studies regarding improvements to northern Kentucky’s Interstate 71 and Interstate 75 corridor.31 Construction could begin within two to three years and take six years to complete.11 30 As of April, the project was only on step five of a fourteen-stage review process.30

In September, Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana (OKI) Regional Council of Governments, stated that both Kentucky and Ohio will need to raise $80 million each over the next six years to help pay for the $2 billion project.32 An $800 million federal highway authorization legislation would cover the final planning of the parallel span and initial construction costs, and the state matches would need to be provided over the six-year lifespan of the spending bill.

If federal funding is approved, construction would begin in 2015 and be complete after four to five years.32

“I’m not quite sure if people in this region understand how economically important (the bridge is) – how it really forms the spine of this region.”
Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, September 24, 2010

On February 2, 2010, several renderings were unveiled that showed a new span over the Ohio River adjacent to the Brent Spence Bridge. The bridges were all double decked, and the designs included an arch bridge similar to Interstate 471 and two cable stayed designs with either 300- to 450-foot supporting towers.38 Planners stated that the new bridge should be distinctive to become a local landmark and have a visual relationship with the existing span.38

  • Arch bridge design, with a 173-foot width, 274-foot height above water and a 1,000-foot main span. The base width is 209-feet. The top deck would carry six lanes for Interstate 75 southbound and northbound on two 64-foot decks, while the bottom deck southbound would carry local traffic on three lanes with a 70-foot deck and northbound Interstate 71 traffic on two lanes with a 70-foot deck.

On March 23, 2011, the Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) recommended against providing $27.2 million in the 2011-2012 budget year towards a detailed design of the Brent Spence Bridge because the project leaders did not expect to need the money until at least July 1, 2012, or fiscal year 2013. In the interm, the project has the money to complete preliminary design work.34 In 2010, TRAC recommended that the $27.2 million be spent on a detailed design of the bridge. TRAC is a nine-member panel that evaluates spending on projects.

OKI reapplied for the $27.2 million in June for the 2013 fiscal year.34

Changes in Covington

With the alignment of the Brent Spence supplementary bridge all but set in stone, Covington, Kentucky officials reached out to the public in how to offset the loss of Goebel Park that the new highway is likely to take.35 The city held the first of two public meetings on October 24, 2010 that showed the amount of land that would be removed from Goebel Park in MainStrasse for the new bridge and approach. By law, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet must provide compensation in Goebel Park for whatever it removes or modifies, either with additional land or new amenities.

The renderings showed that the basketball courts at the park would be removed, along with some walking paths and a right-of-way buffer between the park and the interstate.35

Tolls Floated

With federal funding all but non-existant, local political and business leaders from the Cincinnati region sought out ideas for jump starting construction of the now $2.3 billion bridge 36 over the Ohio River in a meeting held in July 2011.33 One of the major hurdles to the financing is how to match $450 million in federal funds with a local match that is required to move ahead with planning and construction. One of the proposals is to tack on a $20 driver’s license fee to raise $40 million a year from an estimated two millon drivers in an eight county region surrounding the Brent Spence Bridge. The money would be used to back a bond issue that would cover Cincinnati’s local match and help finance development of an electronic tolling system, such as EZ-Pass, which would charge drivers a nominal toll to cross the bridge.

Todd Portune, Hamilton County, Ohio Commissioner, agreed that the idea was worth exploring further. He sought state funding at a July 25 county Transportation Improvement District meeting to study local-match alternatives, such as tolling.33 Ohio’s budget bill passed that summer allowed the state’s 14 districts to request grants up to $250,000 for specific projects, such as studies.

One of the disadvantages to a toll over the new span is that some traffic will divert to local or other interstate spans to bypass the toll plaza.33 Such a proposal for the new crossing would need to be explored with other Ohio River bridges in the Cincinnati region.

Funding for the bridge has become paramount following a June 24 accident on the Brent Spence Bridge.33 The motorist, who had run out of gas during the morning rush hour, was knocked into the Ohio River by another motorist after he had gotten out of the vehicle. The bridge lacked emergency breakdown shoulders.

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