Current Brent Spence expansion plan fatally flawed

This diagram from the 2013 Brent Spence Bridge Project Options Analysis shows the width of the proposed new project.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following op-ed was signed by the five members of the Covington Board of Commissioners.) 

COVINGTON, Ky. – While we all recognize that the Brent Spence Bridge needs improvement, regional leaders who advocate for the current expansion plan on the table continue to overlook the fatal flaws of that plan.
The 16-lane solution still being touted in the media is far too big for what’s needed, doesn’t fix congestion, requires billions in additional investment, risks regional icons like the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, and – as far as Covington is concerned – not only hurts our businesses and residents but interferes with our economic growth and that of the entire Northern Kentucky region.
Kentuckians looking at spending $2.6+ billion to fix a problem whose solution has been discussed for decades have the right to expect that the problem will actually be fixed.
Size & congestion: The need for a 16-lane span was debunked through the further study in the 2017 Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Analysis. It is overdesigned by 30% and still doesn’t solve the problem southbound. The plan calls for the 8 southbound lanes crossing the bridges to revert to the current 4 lanes just south of Kyles Lane. The hill is already congested during the evening rush hour.  The I-275 Interchange is already a challenge. More bridge traffic will add to, not reduce, the congestion. All this does is worsen the evening rush hour and move it further into Kentucky. Getting to work will be easier; getting home will be harder. 
Footprint: The scale of the proposed bridges is hugely disproportionate to our community and does severe damage to Covington, its businesses and neighborhoods. The current bridge has 42 feet of pavement. The plan proposes to build an adjacent bridge with 128 feet of pavement and keep the current bridge, more than quadrupling the landing area in Covington. Imagine – get a picture in your mind – of a bridge complex that’s four times the width of the current bridge. I-75 did immense damage to Covington; this makes it far worse.
Exit: Even with the massive rebuild, Covington as a destination is treated as an afterthought. Access to Covington from I-75 southbound is reduced to a single lane that has to be accessed at the Cincinnati Museum Center if a person wants to exit to Covington. 
Designed in a vacuum: More congestion can’t be solved with the current plan. There’s a fundamental flaw in the design of the region’s traffic network: all the traffic is funneled into one major route. As the ODOT Brent Spence project manager acknowledged years ago: “We could continue to build lanes on 75 but they would fill because of the nature of the traffic network in the region.” In other words, this region cannot build its way out of the traffic congestion issues without fundamental changes in the design of the overall network.
Financing: The only financing plan to date calls for tolls. Perhaps there will be a way to proceed without tolls. Miracles happen. But until the “no-toll” financing plan is developed, the evaluation of the plan has to take tolling into consideration. The funding solution needs to ensure the financial burdens are shared fairly by the region it benefits and doesn’t divert a third of the traffic onto other bridges and through our city. 
Diversion: Namely, tolls will cause traffic diversion, and lots of it. A Kentucky Transportation Cabinet study projects 77,000 cars each day will leave I-75 and use alternative routes to avoid paying tolls on the bridge. Don’t believe it? Traffic on Louisville’s Kennedy/Lincoln bridge fell from 125,700 vehicles in 2013 to 64,200 in 2018, a 49% reduction, after the bridge was tolled. This reality leads many to joke that the easiest way to solve the congestion problem on the Brent Spence would be to skip the construction and toll the bridge. Enough vehicles will seek alternative routes to get traffic volume on the bridge under its design capacity.
Firsthand experience: The truck accident and resulting fireball that shut down the Brent Spence for about six weeks late in 2020 taught Covington firsthand the large cost of diversion. The heavy volume of traffic seeking alternate routes gridlocked Covington’s streets and damaged Covington’s business environment, especially in the MainStrasse Village neighborhood and business district. The quality of life in the residential neighborhoods took a hit when cars and trucks followed their mapping apps onto tight neighborhood streets. One trucker found himself at Greenup Street and Riverside Drive, where he knocked over a fire hydrant and knocked a utility pole onto an occupied car when he tried to drive through a closed-off street.
Icon jeopardized: Covington was forced to shut down the Suspension Bridge during the Brent Spence closure because the truck and vehicle load far exceeded the capacity of this famed engineering marvel, and because so many heavy trucks ignored the weight limit designed to protect it. Diversion would more than double traffic on the Suspension Bridge. Could it handle all the new traffic without a major investment in upgrades?
Wear & tear: Likewise, the diversion caused gridlock on the alternative routes of I-275 and I-471 and the local streets that lead to their approaches – even with fewer cars on the road because of the pandemic. This region and its local governments have no money to make the massive improvements to existing infrastructure that would enable it to handle all this traffic. The cost of upgrading the existing Suspension Bridge infrastructure alone will costs millions and millions of dollars. When examining the cost of the current Brent Spence expansion plan, all of these costs need to be factored in.
Equity: The tolling plan proposed for those crossing the river has a fundamental equity issue. Northern Kentuckians using I-75 to access downtown Cincinnati will pay the toll. But Ohioans using the most expensive part of the project (from north of the Western Hills viaduct to the river) will pay no toll. Consequently, 60% of the tolls paid by those crossing the river will pay for the $1+ billion improvement to I-75 in Cincinnati. This is hardly fair and equitable. If tolls are going to be part of this project, there should be no free riders. There should be no transferring of the cost of Ohio improvements to Kentucky residents.
Toll overflow: Another approach being raised again is to toll all the bridges between Kentucky and Cincinnati to reduce diversion. This is unfathomable. Should Clermont County residents pay two tolls each way to travel to downtown Cincinnati? Should Covington businesses who serve Cincinnati pay two tolls for each trip across the river to service Cincinnati? The interference with interstate commerce is beyond our ability to describe, and it is completely unacceptable. The economic vitality of Covington will be eviscerated if there are tolls on all the bridges.
Construction impact: In the last five years, Covington’s businesses have suffered through the impact of three projects on the Brent Spence: the 2017 resurfacing, the 2020 fireball reconstruction, and the 2021 repainting now underway. Each project has lasted a few months. During the construction of $2.6 billion solution, the 4th and 5th Street interchanges would be closed for up to 3½ years, during which traffic trying to avoid construction would flood Dixie Highway, ML King Jr. Boulevard/12th Street, Pike Street, and Main Street.
Business survival: Thus nearby businesses would lose both ways – no easy access, too much through traffic. Will the hotels, companies like the Radisson, the Lexus dealership, Corken Steel, Cincinnati Closet, all the fast-food restaurants and the MainStrasse businesses survive when the primary access is closed and the secondary access routes are gridlocked? There is not enough compensation that could save these business operators.
These are legitimate and substantial concerns, and Covington has been raising them for the past five years. Yet the official plan remains unchanged. The only actionable improvement identified in the last eight years is the “Texas Turnaround” project that makes adjustments to the 4th Street on ramp to reduce northbound congestion and improve safety. The proposal has been approved by the Federal Highway Administration and is projected to solve the northbound bridge constraint in the interim. It is expected to start as soon as the bridge is painted. 
We support the Texas Turnaround, and we believe that transportation officials on both the state and federal levels should exhaust all such possible interim solutions as we reevaluate the long-term improvements.
Times and circumstances have changed in the 20 years since the current plan was initiated. We ask highway planners to revisit their assumptions based on current circumstances and data and re-plan the project accordingly. Address these objections. Be transparent about the financing mechanisms required.
And then come to the table with a plan that’s good for us all, so together we can advocate for an improved transportation network for Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati.
Mayor Joe Meyer
Mayor Pro Tem Ron Washington
Commissioner Tim Downing
Commissioner Shannon Smith
Commissioner Michelle Williams  
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