Replacement of Cincinnati’s infamous Brent Spence Bridge gets political

Since the late 1990s, most government agencies have posted their reports and meeting minutes online. But more than a decade into the Internet era, it is clear that most citizens never familiarize themselves with the materials on these websites. This unfortunate situation has allowed politicians and corporations to continue constructing and perpetuating narratives with no factual basis.

An example of our present dilemma is the conversation – or rather lack thereof – surrounding the Brent Spence Bridge Replacement/Rehabilitation Project, the Cincinnati area’s largest public works project in a generation. After years of inattention by the local media, the $3-plus billion project recently returned to the news after 42 year-old Westwood resident Abdoulaye Yattara, a native of Mali, West Africa, was killed in a fall from the bridge on June 24.

One alternative for an auxillary Brent Spence Bridge.

A flurry of talk radio folderol filled area airwaves during the weekend following the accident. The feature common to all of these conversations was that the public, and even most media figures, were unaware that planning has been underway for the Replacement/Rehabilitation project since 2002, an official website with project plans has been online since around 2005, and that most major decisions concerning the bridge’s design have already been made.

The failure of the local media to inform the public reached new lows on July 6, when the Cincinnati Enquirer’s “Bridging the gap of safety and need” cover story insinuated [PDF] that the existing Brent Spence Bridge will be demolished and replaced when in fact the decision to rehabilitate it after a new bridge is built next to it was made in 2006.

But this omission was not a fluke – on Bill Cunningham’s July 8 radio show, Cincinnati City Councilman Wayne Lippert was asked what the future held for the existing Brent Spence Bridge. The particular way he dodged the question functioned much like the Enquirer’s July 6 report – casual listeners were left to believe that the existing bridge will be replaced.

Politicization of the Bridge Project
Taking advantage of what the public doesn’t know and what the media fails to report, elected officials with no direct involvement with the project, especially Republicans with Tea Party leanings such as Councilman Lippert, have positioned themselves as common sense watchdogs. In a stunning contradiction of Tea Party principals, they have accused “government” of delaying taxpayer spending on a bridge project about which even the most basic details are unknown by the public.

Our local media, rather than working to debunk myths regarding the bridge project, is working in tandem with politicians to advance them. On July 8 the Cincinnati Enquirer ran yet another pro-bridge editorial that cut-and-pasted often-heard bridge talking points. Most absurd is the perpetuation of the idea that the Brent Spence Bridge occupies a special place in the national transportation network, and as such, the Replacement/Rehabilitation Project should be directly funded by the Federal Government.

Cincinnati’s infamous Brent Spence Bridge

The sober fact is that the Brent Spence Bridge, like most urban interstate bridges, primarily serves local commuters and delivery trucks. For fifteen years after its construction it was the region’s only interstate highway crossing. But between 1977 and 1979, three other interstate highway bridges opened nearby, providing numerous alternative routes through the Cincinnati area for long-distance travelers. Mid-1980s modifications to the bridge and the early 1990s reconstruction of the bridge’s hillside approach in Covington were responses to increased commuting from new Northern Kentucky suburbs, not an increase in long-distance travel.

Emergency Shoulders
The circumstances of the death of Mr. Yatarra were caused by the bridge’s lack of emergency shoulders. Certainly, such shoulders are an asset, but according to this article, 12% of deaths on America’s Interstate Highway System occur on emergency shoulders. Full paved shoulders are extremely expensive to build and maintain, which is why they were a rarity in Cincinnati and elsewhere before passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

Many of our nation’s famous bridges and tunnels built before its enactment still lack emergency shoulders. Some built since, such as our Brent Spence and I-471 Daniel Carter Beard Bridges have had their emergency shoulders restriped as travel lanes. With the simple act of painting dashed lines instead of a solid white stripe, each of these bridges were automatically classified as “functionally obsolete”. The insinuations of this term have been endlessly exploited by the highway lobby and the politicians they fund.

A desire for failure?
When planning for a new bridge began, the public was led to believe that the end product would unsnarl traffic, become a new symbol for the region, and be free to travel across. Ten years on, it is apparent that the project will likely be none of those things.

What is astonishing is that the same politicians and media figures who have relentlessly attacked Cincinnati’s modern streetcar project by refusing to engage facts are the same ones inventing and perpetuating myths in support of the Brent Spence Bridge Rehabilitation/Reconstruction Project.

Whereas they commonly claim the streetcar project “needs further study”, the Brent Spence Bridge apparently needs less. Whereas the streetcar will be subject to a second ballot issue this fall, they argue that the Brent Spence should receive a Federal award covering its entire cost and construction should be underway by this time next year.

Why have Lippert and other area officials, most of whom have no direct say in the bridge project’s affairs, suddenly concocted a round of free press? The answer, it appears, is that next year when the final bridge design is announced, these same characters will exploit the public’s disappointment in their broad anti-government narrative. The retention of the existing Brent Spence, the ho-hum design of the new bridge, and the specter of tolls will be blamed on a soup of high union wages, the national debt, social welfare programs, ObamaCare, and other government “spending”.

  • Matt

    This article feels like an introduction without an argument. Local politicians will do their best to build all of this into their narratives, I agree. The bridge project has gotten very little attention for the scale of the project, I agree.

    Are you arguing that the bridge is fine? Are you arguing that shoulders are somehow more dangerous than traffic lanes wall-to-wall? Or do you just see this project as sucking up the money that should be funding streetcars?

    Regardless of the source of the traffic, this bridge is one of the biggest traffic bottlenecks in a 500 mile radius.

  • I do find the political posturing on this topic particularly interesting. What I am most curious about is how the project is going to get a virtual blank check from the federal government as they attempt to cut $2-4 trillion from the budget, with presumably the lion’s share of that coming from domestic spending.

    Furthermore, Cincinnati has lost a major advocate in Washington D.C. with the replacement of Steve Driehaus (D) with Steve Chabot (R). Chabot is notorious for not working to get a single dime for the Cincinnati region, and has even riducled those who have (like Jean Schmidt). So how will the non-factor Chabot play into this whole project. Clearly it needs major support in DC, and Chabot is clearly the last person for that job.

  • Why the hell are Cincinnati councilmen speaking out on this, don’t they have anything better to do do? Like say, a city budget to balance?

    I think we need to identify funding for the bridge, because isn’t one of the tenants of the tea-party the fact that the government can’t keep spending money on the backs of the taxpayer? And in the instance of this bridge I agree with them 100%. If its so badly needed lets make it pay for itself. I bet if it had a toll all the sudden people would find more convenient ways across the river.

  • Ryan L

    It seems as though you are suggesting these politicians are calculating how they can exploit this event for their own publicity, and I don’t think it is that complicated. I think they genuinely are concerned about the bridge even if they are very wrong on the facts. Unfortunately, their concern (as everyone else’s) is very reactionary. Someone dies on the bridge, so suddenly everyone is talking about its replacement.

    I think Lippert is simply expressing his concern over the bridge and hoping people will see his “common sense” approach. I don’t think he is doing this to set himself up for a slam-dunk political move in a year.

    I do agree that these politicians are treating the $95+ million streetcar project unfairly compared to the $3+ billion Brent Spence Bridge replacement. You would think the Brent Spence Bridge replacement was their idea by how they are reacting to it.

    Also, are you suggesting there will be a toll on the bridge? You imply that it will not be free to travel across.

  • Ryan L

    Maybe we should get private donations to fund the bridge. I’m sure that all of the trucking companies from Florida would shell out millions each to replace the bridge since it will affect them so much!

    Unfortunately this is the viewpoint most of the Tea Party/Conservatives have on the streetcar.

  • WOW, here we go, a WSJ story on how crushing the debt from the stadium deal is, and we want to build a 4 billion dollar bridge?

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    Matt, I concede that this was not my most polished piece of writing, but I was interested in getting these points out there in a timely fashion.

    >Are you arguing that the bridge is fine?

    Back up and ask what exactly are the goals of this project and precisely how much scarce public money should be dedicated toward achieving those goals? I am not convinced that this $3 billion expenditure will do much at all to encourage economic investment in the region. I suspect that it will enable more sprawl, not act to strengthen Cincinnati the NKY river cities.

    >Are you arguing that shoulders are somehow more dangerous than traffic lanes wall-to-wall?

    No, but they clearly aren’t perfect. In the past decade, over 6,000 people have died on America’s emergency shoulders. That’s significantly more than the Iraq/Afghan wars. Also, the bad thing about emergency shoulders is that with an hour of work by a road crew, they turn into travel lanes, and instantly that roadway becomes “functionally obsolete”. There is nothing preventing such a restriping on the new bridge, meaning it could with the order of an administrator also become functionally obsolete.

    >Or do you just see this project as sucking up the money that should be funding streetcars?

    The Cincinnati area’s prime deficiency is poor public transportation. $3 billion in capital construction would more than pay for a multi-county light rail network, including a new bridge over the Ohio River that would completely remove the necessity of this planned vehicular bridge. But our local media is incapable of publishing a factual and thoughtful story on such an alternate use of funds, so let’s not give them any ideas.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    Also, here is a link to the 30 seconds of the Cunningham/Lippert discussion I mentioned in the article:

  • Matt

    I’m not interested in discussing your style, I was just wondering what alternatives to the bridge you would suggest. I would like nothing better than an extensive light rail system, but I think your estimate of a multi-county rail system and a new bridge for $3 billion dollars is ridiculous. Do you have anything to back that up other than multiplying the streetcar budget by 30? In order to take commuter pressure off the bridge, you would need a network through the suburbs, from Hebron, Florence and Elsmere to Downtown, Mason and Tri-County. Which sounds wonderful, but would cost a multiple of what you expect. That doesn’t include getting people to actually ride the thing.

    As to your weird shoulder canard, they are dangerous because they are next to the highway. It isn’t safer to get out of your car in a traffic lane. The freak accident that happened to the unfortunate man a few weeks ago is not a reason for shoulders. The reason is that, when there is an accident on the bridge (which happens very frequently) it necessitates lane closures every time, backing up traffic for miles. That’s why it is ‘functionally obsolete’. Not some esoteric textbook discussion, but miles and miles of snarled traffic on a nearly daily basis.

    Ultimately, I don’t know if the current estimates for the Brent Spence changes are as cost effective as they could be. Finding waste or corruption in any large public project would never shock me. However, comparing them to a streetcar that goes 4 miles in a circle in a densely populated area on pre-existing streets is ridiculous.

    Somehow, this bridge has become symbolic of the suburban Tea Party ‘enemy’. It’s simply an infrastructure project. I think Lippert and the anti-Obama orthodoxy are not the only ones letting politics cloud their judgment on this issue.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    Matt, the problem with the planning process as I see it is that they didn’t simultaneously study alternatives based on cost. Specifically, with these kinds of projects, they should present what $1 billion gets us, what $2 billion gets us, what $3 billion gets us, etc. Instead, they only present the “preferred” alternative, which has the appearance of being the end product of an objective process, but which can be the result of a heavily manipulated one in which only a huge bridge satisfies necessary criteria.

    Second, I have studied the history of public transportation in this city more than almost anyone, so I know from memory that OKI’s late 90’s “I-71 Light Rail” study determined that construction of a light rail line from King’s Island to CVG and Florence, KY via Blue Ash, Norwood, UC, Downtown, and Covington was estimated to cost about $1 billion in late 90’s dollars. This included the Mt. Auburn Tunnel and a new Ohio River bridge adjacent to the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge. In today’s money $3 billion could cover the construction cost of that line and most of the rest of the 2002 Metro Moves plan.

    Also, I work for a company that sends 12 delivery trucks on routes every day, 2 or 3 of which cross into Kentucky. I am familiar with the cost of this service, and a larger bridge will have virtually zero effect on our bottom line. To some extent this is because we send the trucks out at 7am or earlier to beat the morning rush hour and they come back at 3 or 4 before things pick back up. MANY companies take this same strategy, and the net benefit is that we get more value out of our publicly financed infrastructure. With a higher peak travel hour capacity, more people will simply change their hours of operation, meaning peak hour travel will rise dramatically, and we’ve spent an awful lot of money for zero gain.

  • Matt

    Jake, I think this reply is what I felt was missing from the initial article. It is clear and specific in alternatives. I have to take your word on the cost of the older rail study, but I concede your knowledge of the subject.

    The only minor quibble I have is that, if most of the travel across the bridge is commuters, their schedules are not flexible, otherwise rush hour wouldn’t exist. The cost in money and time to the unfortunate folks like myself that cross the bridge twice a day is clear, as my wife and boss will attest. Any rail alternative to ease the situation would need to be extensive, but certainly has my support. It just feels like a much longer shot to get done than the bridge capacity expansion. Us walking dead could use some relief.

  • Ryan L


    You say, “When planning for a new bridge began, the public was led to believe that the end product would unsnarl traffic, become a new symbol for the region, and be free to travel across. Ten years on, it is apparent that the project will likely be none of those things.”

    Is this implying a toll will be on the new bridge?

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    Here is a link to the Main Library’s two copies of the I-71 light rail study from 1999:

    Here is a story on the tolls:—odot-chief-hints-at-tolls-for-brent-spence-bridge-replacement

    I was at an ODOT meeting this spring in Columbus where they discussed using tolls to fund future projects due to shrinking revenue from the federal and state gasoline taxes. Transportation budgets are in crisis nationwide and instead of blaming the culprit — declining driving, higher fuel efficiency, and taxes that do not automatically adjust for inflation, the blame will be placed on “government”, and especially the environmentalists, electric cars, etc. The Enquirer’s Barry Horstman was at the same meeting but he’s not covering the Brent Spence Bridge beat. In face, nobody is assigned permanently to this story. Instead they have Horstman harassing the streetcar project at least twice a month.

  • @Matt: Actually people’s schedules are often more flexible than they think. When other cities enact congestion pricing you often see peak hour congestion reduce and spread out over a longer period of time.

    This is a net gain for a couple of reasons. 1) You’re reducing congestion when the roadways are overloaded, and 2) you are adding usage to times that are otherwise below their optimal service levels. Bottom line is that you begin to use the roadways more efficiently.

    In the case of the Brent Spence Bridge I would think tolls that are only in effect during rush hour would be ideal. This would encourage many commuters to shift their commute slightly as to avoid those peak hours. Thus improving flow and efficiency of the roadway. While you specifically may not be able to adjust your commute, many others can, and that’s a benefit to everyone using the bridge.

    Then again, this all can be accomplished through the implementation of a comprehensive mass transit system. So instead of forcing people to pay a user fee on a stretch of road (toll), you reduce congestion and improve efficiency through the choice of many commuters who opt for the transit alternative.

  • Matt

    Tolls are great for fundraising, not social engineering.

    I would happily pay the cost of a toll if it eased my commute. However, while a rush hour toll would reduce the number of cars crossing that bridge during rush hour, it wouldn’t make the commute better. Toll plazas would slow the traffic further during rush hour(which an EZ Pass-like system could ease but not eliminate) and flood traffic to the other handful of bridges that are already at a high capacity around that time. This would gridlock Covington and Cincinnati street traffic further and it would make the bridge traffic slower still.

    People’s schedules are not as flexible as you want them to be.

    I can tell that you don’t commute across the bridge.

    Again, I agree that a comprehensive transit solution for the region, that includes light rail, would be ideal. But, for those of us that have to deal with crossing that bridge daily, in the snow, or when another truck jack-knifes on it, it’s a distant dream.

    So continue fighting the good fight when it comes to your transit dreams, but you don’t need to try to tie this bridge to the Tea Party and the knee-jerk morons on talk radio to make your point.

  • @Matt: I was not the author of this op-ed, and I have not tied this bridge project to anything of the sort when it comes to political ideologies. In fact I have been a proponent of replacing the Brent Spence Bridge for some time.

    I am in favor of tearing down the existing Brent Spence Bride and replacing it with a new span to the west. The Brent Spence Bridge is a critical piece of infrastructure for the Cincinnati region and nation as a whole, and should be treated as such. With that said, there are more sophisticated ways to deal with peak hour congestion and gridlock than by adding more lanes in what inevtiably becomes an exercise of feeding an insastiable beast.

    The reality is that congestion in and around the Ohio River needs to be handled in a more comprehensive manner that goes beyond simply adding more lanes and building more bridges. I just want this to be a smart, 21st centure solution.

    And for what it’s worth, no I don’t commute across the bridge. In fact, I do not even own a car.

  • With all of these recent events on the BSB I would have considered the project to be a focus of Kentucky DOT, but now I am not so sure after the NASCAR debacle down I-71 in Sparta.

    It seems that the massive congestion surrounding the NASCAR event has somehow taken priority over the BSB in terms of Kentucky politics. Kentucky’s governor has already pledged to do whatever necessary to fix the issues in/around Sparta, KY to make next year’s race a success. To ensure that it will require tens of millions of transportation dollars though…dollars that will probably come at the expense of the BSB project. Thoughts?

  • Matt, you may be right that tolls (or congestion pricing) aren’t the best method of social engineering, or that people’s schedules aren’t as flexible as some think, but you chose to live in NKY and work in Cincinnati (at least that’s what I assume based on your comments). Whatever criteria you used to make that decision may be perfectly rational to you, but when hundreds of thousands of other people make those same choices, we end up in the situation we’re in with clogged roads and little in the way of alternatives.

    It’s no secret that building more highway capacity only enables more sprawl, and we get right back to the same level of congestion as before, only instead of 8 lanes of congested highways we’ll have 10 or 12 or 14, with sprawl from Crittenden and Dry Ridge clear up to Lebanon and Waynesville. By removing such bottlenecks as the Brent Spence Bridge, all we do is enable people to live farther and farther away, and we all have to pay the extra costs for that.

    I’m not going to cry for anyone who has to commute across any bridge, or through any congested interchange, because that’s part of the price you have to pay for choosing to live and work where you do.

    • lessismore1

      Why the hell did Cincinnati build it’s airport in Nothern Kentucky? I have tried to fly in to Dayton, but bad connections. So we avoid traveling to Cincinnati for business.

  • why are gov bridges way over price. the mackinaw cross 5 miles of mean nasty great lakes with up to 12 ft of snow and ice and 135 mph winds for only 100mill. why do railroad bridges last over 100 years and hwy cant even make it 60 years. also rr bridges carry 5o times more weight. uniom pacfic just built a double track bridge over in ia that is 2 times longer then the i 71/75 bridge overthe ohio river. why 45 million for a stidy. where is the outrage over theis price tages