News

State, Covington reach monumental agreement on Brent Spence Bridge

Covington Mayor Joe Meyer appeared on WCPO’s early morning news show in 2021 to talk about Covington’s concerns about the proposed design of the Brent Spence Corridor project. The bridge can be seen in the background shrouded with tarp during the painting and maintenance project.

City gains storm water fix, street upgrades, project liaison, 

and fewer buildings torn down

COVINGTON, Ky. – Intense negotiation over the last year or so between the City of Covington and Kentucky Transportation officials has yielded an agreement that will lessen the negative impact of the Brent Spence Corridor improvement project on the city’s residential and business landscape and significantly improve public infrastructure around the site.

As part of the agreement, the state will:

  • Arrange to build a new and separate storm water drainage system for highway rain runoff that should alleviate – and potentially eliminate – flooding issues in and around the Peaselburg neighborhood.
  • Upgrade City streets – including the intersections at 4th and Main streets and 5th and Main streets – to improve traffic flow and safety during the 5½-year construction period.
  • Pursue a “skinnier” design for the new “companion” bridge that will drastically reduce the number of buildings in the way of construction, reducing by 25 the number of Covington homes that would need to be acquired and reducing from 18 to 11 the number of businesses. The narrower design shrinks the driving surface of the new companion bridge from 145.5 feet wide to 84 feet wide and the additional land needed for the approaches to the bridge from 24.5 acres to 13.7 acres.
  • Commit $500,000 over five years to hire a project director who will act as a technical liaison for Covington on the bridge project.
  • Triple the funding for the Lewisburg Fa├žade Grant Program, as part of a 2012 agreement that addresses the negative impact of construction on that neighborhood.
  • And give Covington a formal seat at the table as decisions related to design, construction, and environmental impact are made in the years ahead. That includes issues such as noise and air pollution; impact on historic structures; traffic; and aesthetic design of retaining walls, bridge facades, landscaping, and bicycle/pedestrian amenities.

Covington Mayor Joe Meyer, who led the negotiation for the City, said the agreement – which comes on the heels of the successful fight to ward off tolls as the primary way to pay for the $2.8 billion project – represented another monumental win for Covington’s residents and businesses.

“The commitments the state has made are large and impactful,” Meyer said. “We didn’t get everything we asked for, but this agreement with the Transportation Cabinet is the roadmap for how Covington’s environmental and operational concerns will continue to be addressed as the project progresses.”

Meyer briefed the Covington Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night on the terms of the agreement, spelled out in two contracts that were then approved by the Board on unanimous votes. One contract has already been signed by Kentucky Transportation Sec. Jim Gray; the other will be signed soon.

The Mayor’s 17-minute presentation can be heard at this link to the TBNK June 14 BOC meeting. Skip to 9:58 for the start of the presentation.

About the project

The long-discussed Brent Spence Bridge Project aims to improve safety and alleviate highway congestion on Interstates 71-75 as they cross the Ohio River on the double-decker Brent Spence. The bridge was built in 1963 to carry about 80,000 vehicles a day but currently carries about double that. Backups affect not only commuters but also trucks carrying freight, since about 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product crosses the bridge every year.

Details of the project can be found at Brent Spence Bridge Corridor. Generally, it involves:

  • Improvements to the existing bridge that will reduce the number of its lanes to three in each direction.
  • Construction of a new, companion bridge to the west that would include five lanes in each direction.
  • Separation of traffic based on destination, diverting local traffic to the existing bridge and through traffic to the new bridge.
  • And redesigning and upgrading 7.8 miles of I-71/75 from Fort Mitchell to just north of the Western Hills viaduct in Cincinnati.

City concerns

Covington has long expressed concerns both with the so-called “preferred alternative” design for the Brent Spence Corridor project that was adopted in 2012 and with the reliance on tolls to pay for it, given the undue negative impact on the city of both that design and the funding mechanism. The City grew increasingly vocal expressing those concerns after the arrival of new leadership in 2016-17 and with evolution of the business climate in Covington’s core.

“The circumstances of 2022 are very different from those that existed during the leadup to the 2012 plans,” Meyer said. “Covington has changed – we’re very different from what we were in 2005, 2006, 2008 when planning was under way.”

To lay out the City’s concerns in a comprehensive way, the then-Board of Commissioners in March 2021 published an op-ed titled Current Brent Spence expansion plan fatally flawed that received widespread attention, with media as far away as New York, Japan, and Switzerland sending reporters to Covington.

“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 op-ed began.

“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.”

Based on that op-ed and the renewed attention it garnered, Covington was able to grab the ear of state officials as it continued to fight against tolls and the impact of diverted traffic, as well as the pending impact of bulldozers.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and his Ohio counterpart, Mike DeWine, came together Feb. 28 of this year to pledge to solve the Brent Spence problem without using tolls and to continue working to address Covington’s concerns. An article about the pledge can be seen at No-tolls pledge a ‘win’ for City, region.

Given the support expressed by President Biden and various members of Congress, the governors say they’re confident that the project will be paid for through a combination of federal infrastructure money and state appropriations.

The no-toll pledge would save Northern Kentucky drivers and businesses untold millions, Meyer said at the time. Meanwhile, negotiations with KYTC continued behind the scenes.

Gov. Beshear and Sec. Gray in particular have been attentive to Covington’s concerns, Meyer told City Commissioners, as have State Highway Engineer James Ballinger, Project Director Gary Valentine, and District 6 Project Director Stacee Hans.

The City’s ‘ask’

Part of the urgency of Covington’s concerns stems from the City’s negative experience over the last two years, Meyer said. The City was forced to learn a lot of lessons about the negative impact of diverted traffic in late 2020, when a fiery crash on the bridge forced it to close for six weeks for an emergency repair, and in 2021, when lanes were reduced during a massive painting and maintenance project that lasted from March to November. Both events clogged Covington streets with interstate travelers and local commuters trying to avoid the backups, and sent massive trucks into neighborhoods.

Meyer said Covington’s experience after the crash and during the maintenance project gave credibility to its arguments that the state needed to take seriously the impact on City streets, neighborhoods, and businesses not only during the long construction period but with the redesigned interstate.

Covington being given a seat at the table – especially on the project advisory and aesthetics committees – will be particularly advantageous, given that the project will employ what’s called a “design-build” method. That means that decisions on design features and other issues will be finalized after the start of construction and as it proceeds.

In essence, Covington will still have opportunity to fight for its residents and businesses in the years ahead.

The current schedule calls for construction to begin at the end of 2023 and be complete early in 2029.

Flooding

As for the storm water issue, Meyer said that was a place where Covington thought outside the box to identify an opportunity to fix a long-established engineering problem. Ever since the interstate was built in the 1960s, neighborhoods located downhill have been plagued with flooding issues related to both highway-related runoff and to backups and overflow of the City’s combined sewer and storm water drainage systems.

In essence, the state has committed to separating the highway drainage system from the City’s system and piping the water separately through the Willow Run watershed to the Ohio River. According to preliminary drawings, that would remove 467 acres of watershed drainage area from the City’s sewers.

“The goal here simply is to correct the historic flooding problems and eliminate the street and basement flooding along Highland Avenue and Euclid Avenue (in the low-level basin of Peaselburg),” Meyer said.

Not all it wanted

However, Meyer said the City was unsuccessful in acquiring other concessions that it lobbied for. Those include:

  • Funding to bolster Covington’s police department, adding officers and equipment to handle the increased demand during construction.
  • Funding to help Covington businesses negatively impacted by construction. The City had in mind a program similar to its COVID-19 relief programs that would help businesses survive the construction period.
  • ´╗┐Expansion of the number of Historic Districts deemed impacted by the project. Currently this includes only Lewisburg, but the City unsuccessfully sought to add MainStrasse Village, Seminary Square, Old Town/Mutter Gottes, and Historic Licking Riverside, as well as the historic John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, based on its experience with diverted traffic over the last two years. Such a designation would have brought additional funds to help those neighborhoods, infrastructure, and businesses there.

Still, Meyer said he was pleased by what he called “KYTC’s good faith in working with the City.”

Vice Mayor Ron Washington praised the agreement, calling it one of the best developments surrounding the Brent Spence project that he’s heard, and saluted Meyer’s hard work.

“Thank you for your diligence on this and for fighting on behalf of our city,” Washington said.

# # #