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Brent Spence bottleneck draws national focus with passage of infrastructure bill

‘We’ve talked about it for decades. This is our best opportunity to do it.’
Published: Nov. 8, 2021 at 6:26 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - A bipartisan infrastructure deal brings the Brent Spence Bridge project as close to reality as it’s been since the Ohio Department of Transportation first declared the bridge functionally obsolete 36 years ago.

Gov. Andy Beshear acknowledged as much on Monday, saying a hoped-for grant from the bill would “get that Brent Spence Bridge done—and we are ready for it.”

The governor reiterated a stance from earlier this year that it’s his goal to get the project funded without resorting to tolling.

“I want to do what it takes,” he said. “I want to get this thing done. We’ve talked about it for decades. This is our best opportunity to do it. I want to be the governor that gets this done. What was once viewed as impossible suddenly now seems to be very possible.”

The bridge received further national attention over the weekend in a Washington Post article calling it “one of the nation’s worst bottlenecks” and highlighting it as the sort of infrastructure project the bill is designed to advance.

The article quotes Mark Policinski, chief executive of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, as saying the federal government has “given a cold shoulder to infrastructure across this country” for decades.

The bill distributes $438 million to Kentucky and $483 million to Ohio for bridges. Another $12.5 billion is available in competitive grants for bridge projects, according to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, one of the bill’s architects.

A separate pool of about $16 billion is for “major projects that are too large or complex for traditional funding programs,” according to the White House. Beshear’s administration is expected to apply for a grant for the Brent Spence project drawing from those funds.

The governor said additional amounts could be sourced from Kentucky’s general fund or reserve trust fund. He also said the project might not require bond financing depending on the financial climate.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed out of the U.S. House of Representatives late Friday after intense wrangling by Democratic leaders who in the end successfully separated the bill from a broader social spending measure.

Thirteen House Republicans voted in favor of the bill which passed by a 228-206 vote. It now heads to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

The bill reauthorizes existing surface transportation programs and includes $110 billion in new money for roads, bridges and major projects. The Biden Administration calls it the “single largest investment in repairing and reconstructing our nation’s bridges since the construction of the interstate highway system.”

The Brent Spence, a double-decker bridge spanning the Ohio River from Downtown Cincinnati to Covington, Kentucky, opened in 1963 as part of that initial wave of federal highway construction.

The bridge’s emergency shoulders were eliminated in 1985. It now carries twice its intended daily vehicle throughput and, per Policinski, ten times its intended truck traffic, earning it the Ohio Department of Transportation designation of functionally obsolete.

Nevertheless, recent inspections found the bridge to be structurally sound, and a renovation project that included the bridge’s first repainting since 1991 finished on Monday.

The bridge is centrally important to the federal highway system. It carries three percent of the U.S. gross national product every year and is one of the nation’s busiest by freight volume.

The “Brent Spence Bridge corridor project” focuses on adding a second bridge beside the current one to relieve traffic.

Progress is happening slowly on the initial phases in Ohio. ODOT has committed $130 million in state TRAC grants for approach work. Property acquisition and utility relocation are underway, with detailed design work scheduled to begin sometime this year.

But the lack of significant local and federal funding sources has long hamstrung the project, and Northern Kentucky leaders have opposed tolls despite previous estimates that they’re necessary to fund the project.

Kentucky economy ‘on fire’

Beshear on Monday spoke at length about the potential impact of the infrastructure bill on Kentucky at large, saying the bill will provide for major investments apart from the Brent Spence.

“When we invest in our infrastructure, we unlock potential. We also reduce costs in the future. We make ourselves more resilient against the types of natural disasters we see far too often. We make our kids safer when we put them in the car to take them to school or church,” he said.

The bill includes millions for safe drinking water, high-speed broadband internet, public transportation, airports, the electric vehicle charging network, wildfire protection and cyber-attack protection. (See state-by-state breakdowns.)

“We’ve got an economy on fire, and this [bill] is going to ensure that we grasp our destiny as a leader, never a follower again. We are going to be wise about how we spend it, on the right projects, working across party lines and at every level of government and with the private sector,” he said.

Kentucky’s recent economic success includes several major projects from the likes of Ford, Toyota and Apple. Amazon’s worldwide air hub launched at CVG in August.

Beshear said the bill can help cement Kentucky as one of the county’s economic leaders.

“That’s something we have all been hungry for, for a long time. I’m tired of people looking down their noses at us, tired of people thinking we are a flyover state. We are now the destination. Our time is here. Our future is now. Our job is to go get it,” he said.

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