Replacing a bridge that connects Ohio and Kentucky and is a key element of the nation’s Interstate Highway System takes years of planning. The Brent Spence Bridge, which crosses the Ohio River between Covington, Ky., and Cincinnati, Ohio, as I-75 and I-71, is an integral link to long-distance state and national commerce, and a major thoroughfare between Detroit, Mich., to the north and Miami, Fla., to the south.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimated I-75 is one of the busiest trucking routes in North America with truck traffic approaching 6 billion mi. annually. More than 250 freight trains pass through or have designated stops within this corridor each day.
The Brent Spence bridge, built in 1963, is one of only 15 major interstate bridges listed by the National Bridge Inventory as functionally obsolete due to the capacity, sight distance, and safety concerns associated with its current configuration.
According to Todd Lindgren, press secretary to Congressman Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, “I-75 is an International Trade Corridor.” The project is in the environmental testing phase, taking core samples in the river.
“Congress will take a look at the preliminary engineering studies, but the bulk of funding won’t be decided until the next transportation bill in 2010,” said Lindgren. Big transportation bills come before Congress only every three to six years.
The joint project between the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) was announced in December 2004. Information released at that time stated “the Brent Spence Bridge project is one of several projects to reduce congestion and improve safety throught southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky during the next 20 years. While actual work on the bridge begins after 2012, major improvements to I-75 will be under way north of the Brent Spence Bridge.”
Construction is now anticipated to begin in 2015 following construction of the ODOT-sponsored I-75 Thru the Valley and I-75 Mill Creek Expressway projects. Estimated cost to replace the bridge and its associated approaches and interchanges is $750 million.
The agreement between KYTC and ODOT includes partnering on the environmental and preliminary design phases of the project, which is expected to cost $18 million. ODOT will provide 54.5 percent of the funding and serve as the lead agency and KYTC will contribute 45.5 percent toward the cost, according to the news release.
“We have stated since the beginning that this is a joint effort between Kentucky and Ohio,” Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Deputy Secretary Dick Murgatroyd said. This “announcement spells that partnership out further, and shows the commitment between our agency and ODOT that replacing the Brent Spence Bridge is a top priority.”
The existing Brent Spence Bridge was dedicated on Nov. 29, 1963, having been delayed six days due to the assassination of President Kennedy. It was designed for 80,000 vehicles a day as I-75, with three lanes in each direction. In 1970, I-71 traffic was routed over the bridge.
In 1986 the emergency shoulders were eliminated and the decks restriped for four lanes in each direction.
It is a double-deck, typical of the cantilever truss design, with a main span of 830.5 ft. (253 m) and approach spans each measuring 453 ft. (138 m). Structure length is 1736.4 ft. (529 m) with a vertical clearance of 14.9 ft. (4.5 m) and a roadway width of 91.8 ft. (27.9 m). Construction began in 1961, at a total cost of $10 million.
Currently bridge traffic is estimated to be 150,000 vehicles per day, with approximately 30,000 of that being truck traffic.
According to Cincinnati Enquirer reporter James Pilcher, who spent several weeks studying data on 800,000 spans across the country, “It’s between 30,000 and 35,000 trucks a day so equate that to 12,000 cars per truck and you can see that the bridge takes a beating every day.”
Pilcher further stated, “Motorists are five times more likely to have a wreck on the bridge than on the interstate systems of Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana. Big trucks running side by side on the bridge have less than a yard of space between them.”
In his research, Pilcher found 15 similar structures including The George Washington Bridge in New York City, one in Indianapolis and two in Chicago.
“Of those, the Brent Spence has the seventh highest accident rate even though it’s one of the shortest and carries one of the least amounts of traffic.”
The vehicle count is projected to top 180,000 before the bridge is replaced, and to reach 230,000 by 2030.
The bridge was named for Brent Spence, northern Kentucky’s longest serving congressman, who was elected to Congress in 1930 and retired in 1962. A lifelong Democrat, Spence was a modest man and believed the bridge should have been named for President Kennedy. However, Kentucky Gov. Bert T. Combs resisted said other buildings could be named for the assassinated president. Spence died in 1967 at the age of 92.
Advisory and Aesthetics committees were formed to allow for interaction between ODOT, KYTC, organizations, government entities, and interested communities. The study area encompasses a 6.5-mi. stretch of interstate.
Aesthetics are a major concern. Originally settled in the late 1700’s, both Cincinnati’s and Covington’s built environments around the I-75 corridor are considered highly disturbed, dense urban development with historical districts and other properties nearby. Cincinnati’s I-75 connection is rife with closely spaced ramps and poor roadway geometry. Improvements to connections in Covington have been made during other projects.
Several options have been considered including: rehabilitation of the existing bridge and building another bridge to the west of it; building a tunnel under the Ohio River; building a new bridge to the west of the Brent Spence and also replacing the existing bridge thereby splitting up I-75 and I-71; and building one new replacement bridge with at least five lanes in each direction.
There are pros and cons to each option. Many of those with buildings and businesses beneath the existing bridge are against the taking of their property, yet aligning the labyrinth of interchanges to the west of downtown could free up prime downtown property for development.
Regardless of which option is chosen, some will be unhappy. However, federal funds, in addition to building and repairing roads in the region, will create thousands of new jobs.
Environmental issues exist, regardless of which option is chosen.
“When you’re making a large bridge over water like this, you are always dealing in unseen factors that can always complicate matters,” said Larry Trenkamp, director of construction of the KYTC regional office. Trenkamp has been involved with the last three bridges built across the Ohio River in Greater Cincinnati.
“It would be just about impossible not to cause some inconvenience and congestion when we do all that,” Trenkamp said.
The process of bridge building has been refined in the 40 years since Brent Spence was built, but no matter which option they choose, construction will take at least three years. Estimates on building the new bridge range from 12 to 15 years, including time to draw up plans, assess the environmental impact, get federal approval, secure the money, clear the site and actually build the bridge.
“Maintenance of traffic is our number one concern,” said Kevin Rust of the KYTC. “We can engineer a new bridge and alignment, but we’ve got to find a way to keep traffic going.”
“You hope as an engineer to get just one like this in your career — for me this is it.” Rust is overseeing preparations for possible replacement of the Brent Spence.
Four bridges across the Ohio River are within 3mi. of Brent Spence. None are considered adequate to accommodate the increase in traffic if the Brent Spence is shut down.
In addition, all new ramps to and from downtown Cincinnati on the Ohio side and Covington on the Kentucky side would be relocated.
Water traffic, including commercial barges, would be disrupted even with its own traffic maintenance plan. And parts of the Ohio River would have to be dammed for construction that would take years.
When Congress approved the last major transportation funding, the environmental impact studies weren’t yet completed and a plan wasn’t then, nor is it now, in place for the replacement or rehabilitation of the Brent Spence Bridge. With many other projects of major importance to the infrastucture of the Interstate Highway System under consideration for funding, Congress was opposed to funding programs without a clear and complete plan.
Delegations from Kentucky and Ohio will be lobbying for an estimated $500 million in federal funding for this project.
Time is running out for a bridge long past its prime. CEG
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