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Would carpool incentives be cheaper than a new Brent Spence Bridge?

Jake Mecklenborg hypothethizes on the idea of paying commuters to carpool over rebuilding the Brent Spence Bridge.

When official planning for a new Brent Spence Bridgebegan in 2002, we were told that the existing bridge would be demolished and replaced by a new landmark structure. Total project cost was projected at $750 million to $1 billion and construction was expected to begin in 2008.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the existing bridge – which we were told ten years ago was in imminent danger of collapse – is now planned to be rehabilitated and presumably will remain in place for at least another generation. Meanwhile, the cost of the design and construction of a new parallel bridge and its approaches has soared to $3 billion.

This tripling of the bridge project’s cost in an era of gloomy peak oil predictions has been met with zero scrutiny by the local media. Instead, calls to improve the region’s public transportation, especially the City of Cincinnati’s streetcar project, have been relentlessly harassed.

What incentives could be introduced that would avoid the necessity of a new bridge? The argument for the bridge project rests on the assumption that daily vehicular crossings will increase from approximately 160,000 to 240,000 vehicles by 2030. Most of these 80,000 new vehicles will be single-occupancy vehicles.

Instead of spending $3 billion to build a new ten-lane bridge next to our existing eight-lane bridge, what if we instead paid commuters tens of millions annually to car pool?

Recent history has told us that carpooling will never be popular under current economic conditions. If people are annoyed by strangers on the bus or train, they are annoyed much more by their carpool companions. Disputes over smoking, radio stations, and stops for coffee have killed off countless carpooling arrangements. The cost savings afforded by carpooling have not to date offset those interpersonal problems, nor have the added incentives of HOV lanes or toll waivers in those areas where they exist.

So at what price would people in the Cincinnati area start tolerating the annoyances that come with carpooling? Honestly, I do not know, so why don’t we allow the market decide?

If we assume that the new Brent Spence Bridge will stand for 100 years – perhaps from 2020 to 2120 — that its initial capital cost will be $3 billion, and maintenance of the new bridge over those 100 years will be another $3 billion, then we can hypothetically budget $60 million per year toward carpooling for 100 years.

How would that $60 million be divided?

I propose that this sum be divided equally by the total number of carpoolers. So if just one vehicle were to carpool over the Brent Spence Bridge for the entire year, those two commuters would split between themselves the entire $60 million. But if the 200,000+ single-occupancy vehicles predicted by OKI by 2035 were replaced by 100,000 high-occupancy vehicles, then each car would receive $600 annually, or approximately $2.50 per vehicle, per work day.

The real number would be anywhere between 1 and 100,000, meaning the opportunity to earn more than $10 per vehicle per day seems likely. The carpooling payouts could be made much greater if tolls were implemented only to single-occupancy vehicles and that collection directed entirely toward high-occupancy vehicles.

How could such a plan be implemented?

The recent popularization of smart phones make implementation of such a plan much more feasible. Coordinated with something resembling an EZ-Pass transmitter, carpoolers could tap their phones to the transmitter when they begin their commutes and a credit would be transmitted instantly to their phone as they cross the bridge. The value of this credit would be determined at midnight by the total number of carpoolers who utilized the service each day. In addition to automobiles, the incentive program could be extended to those who own vans, and could motivate the establishment of unofficial bus services for those who commute between Northern Kentucky and Butler or Warren Counties.

Why will the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and ODOT never pay people to carpool?

State and local governments will never pay their citizens to carpool in the way I have proposed because the highway lobby will never allow them to. It should be obvious to anyone who has followed the development of the Brent Spence Bridge replacement project that the proposal, as it exists currently, is well out of proportion for what is necessary. This project is not so much an effort to reduce traffic congestion and encourage economic development as it is a payout to those who are being paid to design and build it.

Some predict gasoline to approach $10 per gallon by 2020, and such a price in 2011 dollars seems to be a certainty by 2035. High gasoline prices might by themselves be enough to motivate people to carpool in large numbers independent of what I have proposed here. But if that is proven to be true, then by 2035 relatively few vehicles will cross our pair of Brent Spence Bridges, and the whole project will be proven to be – get ready for it – an expensive boondoggle.

Brent Spence redesign rendering provided by the office of Roxanne Qualls.

By Jake Mecklenborg

Jake Mecklenborg joined UrbanCincy in 2009, contributing original articles, photographs, and videos. He grew up on Cincinnati’s west side and graduated from St. Xavier High School in 1996. Jake went on to study at the University of Tennessee and Ohio University. His book, Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway: The Complete History, was published by The History Press in 2010. He currently lives on Mulberry Street overlooking Over-the-Rhine.

27 replies on “Would carpool incentives be cheaper than a new Brent Spence Bridge?”

Or Cincinnatians can just get over themselves and embrace public transit. We could penetrate the suburbs with light rail, supplement downtown/uptown transit with a streetcar and reinstall a couple of inclines for tourist effect. I’d love to sell my car!

If I75 were just a local highwy, your idea for encouraging carpooling might work. But it’s a major artery foe the nation. Travel the bridge on a Sunday, when no one is commuting, or in mid-day, and it’s still congested and inadequate – and unsafe. We need a new bridge in a new location.

I love your idea. Perhaps instead of offering the full $6 billion over the next 100 years, it could be $3 billion dollars. This would give some leverage against reconstructing a bridge, and still allow about $3 billion for repairs over that time frame.

I agree that the lobbyists would go up in arms. Also, COAST would probably put up a ballot initiative to stop it (and putting out a “press release” calling it a boondoggle five times, which would in turn get published into a news article on and be on the front page of the print edition. Barry would try to discredit the idea through bias journalism and faulty logic. Carolyn Washburn would insist there is no bias and a one-paper town is not any worse than a two-paper town).

People would also use the argument that this plan wouldn’t create any jobs, whereas the bridge plan creates a lot of jobs. Interesting idea though. I wish government could be a little more open minded about things.

The media is ignoring the bridge because the general public doesn’t understand money at that scale. I believe that people literally do not understand the magnitude of difference between $90 million for a streetcar and $3 Billion for a bridge. Besides, most of the voting public are not interested in rational economic appraisals of public spending. They just vote how they feel.

The bridge could cost a million dollars, a billion dollars, or a hundred billion dollars. If people think they “need” it, they will pay little attention to the cost.

Interesting idea, but Christine is correct. I-75 is a major national route. I’d be curious to see what % of the traffic is considered ‘local’.

Either way, this country is car crazy and while they all freak out over 90 million for a streetcar, billions of their tax dollars on a bridge doesn’t phase them. People are addicted to cars. Really, 3 billion for the bridge isn’t even the end of it – 75 from downtown all the way to tri-county has to be upgraded and expanded as well. Start adding that up and people STILL don’t even blink.

It’s depressing that any sort of public transportation is outright dismissed by the vast majority of the population, but when it comes to roads nobody even raises a finger in protest. You see the same trends in healthcare and just overall issues surrounding the public welfare – if it doesn’t directly benefit their own self-interests its socialist or un-america.

>If I75 were just a local highwy,

This is a myth. The vast majority of traffic on the Brent Spence Bridge is commuters and local delivery trucks, not people driving from Canada to Florida or long haul trucking. But the argument for a new bridge depends on people assuming this. Suggest this to a crowd of old folks and watch them squirm.

>Marshal, that’s it exactly. People see traffic stopped, and they don’t care how much it costs to build something that is promised to keep cars moving. Ask people how many millions are in a billion, and they don’t know. They don’t know the difference between the national debt and the national deficit. At this late hour they barely know what Google is.

What got me thinking about this issue was listening to some NK’ers last weekend say that Ohio was trying to block this new bridge “like how it tried to block the Suspension Bridge back in 1855”. They fundamentally didn’t understand that the old bridge company was just that — a for-profit company that sold stock to fund construction — and therefore there were competitors (ferry operators, people with bridge plans for Newport, etc.) who paid off Ohio state legislators to make the suspension bridge more expensive to build by not allowing it to align with the public right-of-way of Cincinnati’s downtown streets.

They fundamentally don’t understand that all large bridges in the United States were once built by private companies who paid back construction costs and then profited from toll revenue. Anti-tax groups say they want government to run more like a business, but to do so tolls would be collected on all large bridges and on the interstate highways. So anti-tax groups aren’t anti-tax groups, they are simply goons who work the political realm for unseen business interests.

Going off of what Dan said,

People cannot comprehend the $3 billion bridge, just as they cannot comprehend things like preventative care. Doing things like eliminating pollution to reduce the illnesses we get each year just blows over peoples’ heads. They can’t see that increasing public transportation will decrease the need for highway expansion, bridge replacement, and road improvements.

In many places along I-75 more than half and up to 60% of the traffic volume is due to commercial traffic including tractor trailers. This bridge is a vital connection between the south and the great lakes region creating many jobs for the region in transportation and warehousing industries.

^Joe, we have had three other interstate highway bridges since the late 1970’s. I am suspicious of anyone who uses the word “vital”.

I’m not quite willing to make the leap that Brent Spence isn’t a vital component of the national infrastructure…

But it’s true that there’s not one but two other interstate bridges built specifically to accommodate national through-traffic. And one of them is rarely used.

Wasn’t another argument for replacing the bridge the projected increased traffic to CVG?
Now that that has evaporated its been conveniently forgot and new arguments are put forth.
If that bridge is so important, why not put a toll on it now to pay for its replacement?
Surely, if as everyone says, 471 is too inconvenient it will be well worth paying the toll to cross the 71/75 bridge.

Bob, that is a good point about the airport. And I don’t think that improved highway access a transit line to the airport will motivate another airline to establish a hub here reminiscent of Delta’s.

The belief that the Brent Spence is of “vital” national importance has always been a way for the road lobby to attract money to it. I lived for four years in Knoxville, TN and made the drive between there and Cincinnati on I-75 many times. There was usually no traffic to speak of in the Tennessee mountains and Kentucky hills until one reached the I-71 merge in Northern Kentucky. Clearly, most if not nearly all of the cars and trucks crossing the Brent Spence Bridge are local in origin and destination. Manufacturers don’t ship bulk freight from Florida to Canada on trucks, they do it on trains. For example Tropicana sends a train full of orange juice every day or two to Cincinnati.

The Brent Spence Bridge was the only interstate bridge in the region for about 10 years after its opening in 1963. But then three neighbors (Big Mac, I-275 Combs-Hehl, I-275 Cropper) opened in quick succession between 1972 and 1979. This belief that there is no redundancy in our network, and that all long haul trucks must cross the Brent Spence Bridge and the Brent Spence only, recalls the popular notion that Crosley Field was torn down because it was on the flood plain, even though flood walls were built on the western riverfront in 1949. Once the public gets a false idea in its collective head, it’s impossible erase, especially when it can be exploited to channel money into one’s pockets.

This is a very intriguing thought experiment indeed! Kudos to UrbanCincy for publishing this. Unfortunately, there is a problem I see with the implementation.

While the use of smartphones and respective touch-sensitive third party applications have become more commonplace in Cincinnati, they are far from being ubiquitous. Being such, I don’t think it makes sense to create a plan based upon this technology alone, as it seems unfair to implement a carpool reward plan which would exclude the citizenry who either choose not to carry a smartphone, or simply do not have the means to. Possibly an alternative, which would need to be initiated state-wide (OH and KY), would be if we had a chip in our drivers licenses. It could work in the same way described with the “EZ pass transmitter” and would be less exclusionary, since most every working adult has one. It would also make it so that the only persons who are counted would be people that could otherwise drive themselves. This would reward exactly the people who the program intends to reward, carpoolers (not people dropping their kids off at school or persons with multiple smartphones) so there would be less possibility for abuse. I think it would also be helpful to include subsidies for mass transit and biking infrastructure for persons who choose those less taxing means of commute as well. Just thinking out loud. Thanks for the piece again.

@Jake: I’m not sure what is more dead—your brain or the concept of carpooling. Unfortunately there’s not an app for common sense on your smartphone.

Jake Meck.: “^Joe, we have had three other interstate highway bridges since the late 1970′s. I am suspicious of anyone who uses the word “vital”.”

Let’s review where it starts and ends, shall we?

We first begin with Sault Ste. Marie, which is in…wait for it…Canada!! Wow, so a whole other country! Then we go south, through Flint, and on to Detroit, which, giving you the benefit of the doubt, haven’t done that well recently given the economic times. Moving on to Ohio, we then go through Toledo, and then Dayton, then Cincinnati. Going into Kentucky, we pass through the race-horse capital of the world, Lexington. On to Tennessee, where we pass very close to Knoxville (it’s not directly on I-75), as well as Chattanooga (same as Knoxville). Moving on to Georgia, we pass through…holy shit, get this…Atlanta!! Then, approaching the end of our journey in Florida, we first pass through, wow, get this again, Tampa!! And then St. Petersburg. And finally, while passing very close to Miami, we end in Fort Lauderdale.

Jake, you just keep questioning the vitality of I-75, buddy.

And, lastly, not only do Cincinnatians fear public transportation (I can’t figure this out), but they are also individualistic assholes, and they will NOT embrace a carpool plan, ok? Over and out.

Oh, and note this, I do understand the meaning of the term “interstate”. So before you mock how I mentioned Canada, I was basically saying that it serves as a “gateway” highway into Canada, where it of course switches to Canada’s highway system…but it’s close enough.

Ian, as I already mentioned, I lived in Knoxville for several years. More than 10 miles of I-75 travels through Knoxville city limits. I have no idea what you are talking about and neither do you.

The majority of the traffic on any so-called “interstate” highway in Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, Cincinnati, etc., is LOCAL. Is I-75 wider in rural Kentucky or in Atlanta? What was your point again?

Tourists and long haul truckers have four options when traveling on I-75 through Cincinnati. They can cross the Brent Spence Bridge or any of three other interstate bridges. The travel time on the Big Mac adds maybe 10 minutes and either of the I-275 bridges add maybe 25 minutes. Your hypothetical drive from Miami to Canada takes over 20 hours, meaning adding 10-25 minutes, as a percentage, adds virtually no delay to this trip.

So what, again, is the argument for this $3 billion project?

I could give two shits about the Brent Spence Bridge. I have no vested interest, as I don’t own a car, I don’t travel that bridge often, it has practically NO BEARING on my life…now, with that being said, I questioned, specifically, your comment about I-75 not being vital. You’re absolutely right that the traffic is, for the vast majority, local, I don’t deny that. As is the case with any interstate that runs through a medium-to-large city. I get that. But the fact of the matter is that I-75 particularly runs through some industrial, “classic” cities of the US. Cities that have companies that, basically, produce shit. And they need to transport that shit.

I’m just going to warn you, and the Randy Simes’s and Casey Coston’s, and the Bob Schwartz’s of the world. You guys are so ri-goddamn-diculously biased, it’s pretty sickening. You’re not going to win people over with the bullshit attitudes you and everyone else that contributes maintain. You criticize people for the EXACT SAME BEHAVIOR that you exhibit (close-minded “prickness”). You’re not going to win people over by telling them to ride a streetcar and also telling them they’re close-minded pieces of shit, basically. That is all. Class dismissed.

And by the way, that’s nice that I-75 travels through Knoxville city limits, but according to Google Maps, it runs BY Knoxville, but the dot is not exactly on the highway. So my mistake.

I do not travel on the Brent Spence bridge, and I hope that it is declared so unsafe that its usage is drastically limited or even stopped, but that a new bridge is not built. Traffic on the other bridges would then increase. Some commuters would find the traffic congestion unacceptable and try to move closer to their jobs. Empty houses and apartments in the inner city would then be rehabiliated. Carpooling, public transportation usage, and freight train use would increase. It’s too bad that this scenario will probably not pan out anytime soon.

Ian Webster
I don’t exactly hide it or claim to be impartial.
Have you read my twitter bio?

“Cincinnati promoter, Downtown Zealot, overflowing with misguided opinions.”

The engineering study done on Brent Spence said for every dollar invested it would return $0.28. The engineering study done for the streetcar, $2.75.
Where would you invest?

And also, don’t put words in my mouth, can you show me any examples where I’ve called anyone anything?
Besides the coasters that is, those guys are the Keystone cops of politics.

@ Bob: I never said you claim to be impartial. All I’m saying is, your biased views, as time will tell, will not get you far. You may think they will, but they won’t…especially…ESPECIALLY…in this city. Let me be the 100,000th person to remind you, you are greatly outnumbered in the metro area (maybe not the city), as far as political ideology goes. So in order to win the suburbanites over, you’re going to have to approach them a different way instead of basically likening them to backwater, old-fashioned hillbillies.

Where would I invest? NEITHER. The current streetcar idea is joke, and you and everyone else knows it. It’s short and pathetic. I liked the initial idea, where it connected the two largest employment centers. Now? It’s Mayor Mallory’s way of saving face. He just wants to create something to “stick it to” the people that oppose him. Fountain Square to Findlay Market is a fucking Lionel train set.

The metro area, including NKY, is PRIMED for light rail. That’s what the region needs, a light rail system. I’ve said this from day one. I eventually just said, eh, the streetcar is a nice start. But you know how I feel about it now…and yes, I know what you’ll say, if people are so opposed to the streetcar, how do you think they’ll feel about light rail? I get that. It’s pretty depressing to think about.

Look, for the most part, I am on your all’s side. Are the COASTer’s dipshits? Of course! But for all of the John and Jane Doe’s out there, you’re going to have to retool your approach. One by one, you have to win them over.

Ian- I understand where you are coming from, and that partisan bickering doesn’t get us very far. However, the metro area has consistently been against any progressive developments in the city (e.g. fountain square, broadway commons, the banks)and they tend to take a “I’ll believe it when I see it” mentality. I’m not sure how you persuade a group that is so entrenched like that. But now many people I know who were naysayers from the suburbs love going downtown, to findlay market, or the banks. They only thing it took was to actually fight through the adversity and build the projects.

So the city proper tends to have to take the Field of Dreams mentality, “build it and they will come”.

When I saw this headline, I first thought it was a joke of some sort. Then I read it and realized you were actually trying to write a serious piece here. You need to do one of two things – either stop taking whatever drugs you’re on, or go see a good shrink so he/she can put you on some sort of drug. In either case, you should probably be required to go door to door in your neighborhood and let your neighbors know they live next to one very delusional individual. Good luck….you’re gonna need it!

@Ian Webster: I actually am supportive of replacing the Brent Spence Bridge. I am also supportive of a regional light rail system and the Cincinnati Streetcar. It’s not a zero sum game though. Building the Cincinnati Streetcar doesn’t harm the ability to build a regional light rail system. In fact, I think it helps the case to build a regional light rail system.

I do see the current Brent Spence Bridge as a critical piece of local, regional and national infrastructure. I believe it needs to be replaced. With that said, I think it is important that we put this into perspective. This is a $3-4 BILLION project that very few people are discussing. Much fewer than the amount of people discussing the $90 million streetcar system that has secured all of its funding and won’t raise taxes.

In either case, I am not sure why you threw my name out there as I had not even participated in this comment section until just now.

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