Visit from President Obama raises political stakes surrounding the Brent Spence Bridge project

The Brent Spence Replacement/Rehabilitation Project – the Cincinnati region’s largest public works project in a generation – has received more media attention in the past three months than in the nine years since project planning began in 2002. But unfortunately much of the recent conversation has been politicized, with dozens of leaders and media outlets errantly stating that the existing Brent Spence Bridge will be demolished after a new bridge is built.

At an April 20, 2009 press conference, OKI announced that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Ohio Department of Transportation had agreed on a plan that would see a new bridge built for I-75 immediately west of the Brent Spence Bridge and that the existing bridge would be rehabilitated and carry I-71. This plan was endorsed by politicians such as Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, who remarked at the conference that “Conceptually, what they’ve pointed out to me is a very workable plan and it will be something that we all can be proud of.”

Although the local media did report on this “hybrid” plan, it was not covered repeatedly, and so failed to be absorbed by the public. When a great media wave did appear this past summer, outlets repeatedly reported that the Brent Spence Bridge would be “replaced”. Another media surge appeared in September, in anticipation of the September 22 visit by President Barack Obama. Again, it was repeatedly reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer and various television and radio stations that the Brent Spence Bridge will be replaced.

The incredible amount of confusion surrounding the project appears to have been caused by a mix of ghost writing by highway lobbyists, the unfamiliarity of the local media with how Interstate Highway projects are funded and the lingering power of postwar pro-highway propaganda.

On a half-dozen occasions this month, various Cincinnati Enquirer reporters wrote that the bridge would be replaced, in addition to letters to the editor that repeated this myth. On September 14, Enquirer reporter Amanda Van Benshoten reported that the Brent Spence Bridge would be replaced and that it “would remain open” – all in the same article.

Functionally Obsolete vs. Obsolete
The local media and politicians who have associated themselves with this project have made liberal use of the term Functionally Obsolete, engineering jargon that most often describes a bridge with no emergency shoulders, a low overhead clearance, narrow lanes, or ramps with tight curves. The power of this phrase was even invoked by President Obama in his September 22 speech:

“Behind us stands the Brent Spence Bridge. It’s located on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America. It sees about 150,000 vehicles every single day. And it’s in such poor condition that it’s been labeled “functionally obsolete.” Think about that — functionally obsolete. That doesn’t sound good, does it?”

No, it doesn’t sound good, which is why some bureaucrat (or more likely an auto industry public relations wizard) concocted it decades ago. It insinuates structural deficiency – an official term that does denote structural problems — but which does not describe the current condition of the Brent Spence Bridge.

When it is rehabilitated after a new bridge is built, the Brent Spence will have its decks restriped with three wide lanes on each deck instead of its current four narrow lanes, and emergency breakdown lanes will be restored. Its approaches will be reconfigured and it is possible that after 2020 or so the Brent Spence will no longer be classified as Functionally Obsolete.

The Delta Queen passes under the existing Brent Spence Bridge.

The Brent Spence Bridge as Boogeyman
The Brent Spence Bridge (or more accurately, the configuration of its approaches) is the worst traffic bottleneck in the Cincinnati area, but a source of delays and a panorama of rust that would hardly pass notice in New York City or Boston. It nevertheless has been pitted as an enemy by local politicians, and the failure of the local media to do basic public document research, has allowed the bridge project to become whatever any elected official says it is.

Most believe that the Brent Spence Bridge Replacement/Rehabilitation Project, even after last month’s visit by President Obama, will not receive enough funding in the upcoming Transportation Bill to break ground until the next bill is negotiated sometime around 2017 or 2018. Look for local politicians – especially those with Tea Party affiliations – to blame this delay on government.

The project could in fact break ground in the short-term if Ohio and Kentucky cooperated to toll all area Ohio River bridges. Modest tolls could generate over $1 million per week and enable the neighboring states to sell bonds sufficient to fund this project.

But the fact that this is not happening perhaps best illustrates why Congress has hesitated to allocate money – there are no major structural problems with the Brent Spence Bridge, there are three other interstate highway bridges nearby if any problem should arise, and the project’s huge scale promises a very low rate of return on the investment.

  • Thanks for keeping us all informed on this issue.

    The Enquirer example is just sad. Unfortunately it’s not an uncommon incident.

    A point about “functionally obsolete”: the vast majority of the built environment is “functionally obsolete.” From houses with small bedroom closets, to buildings with staircases narrower than the code allows, to roads with improper turning radiuses, to undersized parking spaces. All still usable, though technically “obsolete.”

  • Aaron Watkins

    So is this too far down the line to consider shifting this funding elsewhere? Or at this point would it be more feasible to continue this plan and benefit from the temporary stimulus it may bring to our local economy? If in some way it becomes more popularly agreed upon that this project will not benefit the city, where else would the funding most appropriately be used? If my dreams came true we would be planning a way to bury the whole damn interstate from the viaduct down to the border.

  • Nathan Strieter

    Like all monies specifically designated to a type of infrastructure: bridge, causeway, etc. the money is not transferable to a different project. This is in a effect to be able to prevent money from being embezzled during further studies of how best to allocate funds.

    Basically you build a bridge or you come up with a new plan and then have to pass legislation to get new money for the new plan (old money goes away as the project focus changes), or apply for grants or lobby all with explicit definitions of how the money will be spent.

  • Nathan Strieter

    The scary part of the whole plan is that there will be 14 lanes of highway in NKY. (Sound like the highway cavern in Atlanta? …. only two lanes short)

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    Yeah, there is no going back without completely restarting the study. So it would take 5+ years just to get back to where we are today. That’s what’s so flawed with the planning process — it produced this huge two-bridge plan, and only this plan can advance to be funded.

    But in order to sell the plan to the public, they’re getting away with saying the new bridge needs to be replaced and will be replaced, when in fact it’s going to be rehabbed and will likely live to see its 100th birthday in 2063.

  • paul

    Wow, you’re being just a bit sensational, here. I’ve been reading articles for several years on the Enqr that included very detailed designs (embedded or linked) that had clearly shown the existing bridge would remain. (No, I’m not going to go dig them up, but I’ll bet some of you have read the same articles.)

    It’s fun to pick on the local media — and they often deserve it — but, maybe the issue here is that most of us don’t bother to Read The F’ing Articles anymore.

  • Neil

    A couple things:

    I remember reading an article in the Enquirer back in the 1990s that stated that the bridge should have fallen down by now, turns out that was way off the mark, and probably is the source of the myth that the bridge NEEDs to be replaced.

    Its a bad traffic bottleneck, but the replacement they are proposing is absurd. The idea of putting a bridge further to the west Queensgate and demolishing the Brent Spence would be the best, it would reclaim a large chunk of downtown and I believe save some money. Queensgate was a disaster to begin with, at least bring something back there :P.

  • Schmiez

    What will the “bottleneck” be like for the 5 years they are building the bridge (5 if Im lucky)?

    Until they figure out how to block out the sun on 71/75 south, or KDOT quits closing 2 lanes to do random patchwork every quarter mile, traffic will always be there.

    And as stated, it is far from bad compared to other cities. Dayton’s traffic was as bad if not worse for the past two years. I dread the thought of:

    Downtown Dayton construction +
    Middletown construction +
    Cincy bridge construction

    all during 50 miles of highway.

    • Don’t forget that there are also two major construction projects happening on I-75 in Cincinnati at the same time as the Brent Spence Bridge project. There will be construction from the Ohio River all the way to the northern I-275 interchange.

  • I still think it makes more sense to just decide that the Big Mac bridge is important and let everyone use it. Because really, the only reason the BSB is important is because leaders say it is.

  • Aaron Watkins

    I’m with Neil, the only way that this could be worth the funds is if they build the bridge to the west of Queensgate and reconnect that area to downtown.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    Paul, the whole problem with these drawings and vidoes is that it’s easy for the viewer to assume that the old bridge is pictured simply to show the location of the new bridge relative to it. Also, most of the Enquirer’s readership is old people who still can’t turn on a computer or save a number in a cell phone. They are the most easily misled demographic yet they vote in the highest numbers.

    Today The Enquirer reported that The Brent Spence DOES NOT have the T-1 steel that caused the Louisville bridge to be closed. This after 700WLW reporting that IT DID. Why is such basic information about such a huge project so hard to get straight? Again, we can only suspect that they’re being given muddy information on purpose.

  • Matthew Hall

    If more people knew how roads and other public infrastructure is really funded, they would be more open to alternative approaches. The disconnection between who uses and who pays for roads in the U.S. is a problem for infrastructure spending in just the same what that the disconnection between who pays for health care and who receives it makes the politics of health care so dysfunctional. Jake does a real service by bringing up this point for roads. Let’s pass this on to anyone who will listen. If we can gain more control over our local infrastructue we will have incentives to plan it more carefully and use it more efficiently leaving more money locally for other development efforts like schools, buses, expanded streetcar lines, parks, etc.

  • JonK

    You complain about the Enquirer referring to the project as a “replacement,” but the headline on the UrbanCincy entry directly below yours is: “Designs for Brent Spence Bridge replacement narrowed to three”.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    Fair enough…but I didn’t write that headline. Keep in mind that UrbanCincy is a joint effort by a group of people who aren’t paid and hardly ever see each other in person. Randy has been in South Korea for most of the past year.

    Meanwhile, The Enquirer staff can see this bridge from their office. They are professionals and have all the time in the world to get this stuff right and they just plain can’t do it. Front page of The Enquirer today had a headline typo, with the word “east” instead of “easy”.

  • JonK

    Okay. I wasn’t trying to play “gotcha!” or anything, I just thought it was an interesting contrast. And I know from firsthand experience how hard corporate newspaper owners can make it to put out a decent newspaper.