UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED: HOW WE FAILED TO FIX THE BRENT SPENCE BRIDGE
The Brent Spence Bridge’s traffic chokehold has taken a back seat to political cowardice and misplaced priorities for decades. Will the federal infrastructure bill finally bail out regional leaders who fiddled while the bridge burned?
By Jim DeBrosse – December 6, 2021
The skies over Northern Kentucky were unleashing a chilly downpour on November 11, 2020, as Mansour Thiam drove his International semi north on Interstate 71/75 toward downtown Cincinnati and the Brent Spence Bridge. Traffic was mercifully light at 2:30 in the morning, though it backed up short of the Radisson Hotel in Covington.
Another semi had jackknifed on the slippery road and was disabled in the breakdown lane. Diesel fuel from the truck had sloshed across the highway. Thiam was careful crossing the oily slick, then joined the renewed flow of traffic as he continued north in the middle lane.
As he entered the lower deck of the bridge and its notoriously dark and narrow lanes, Thiam could feel his trailer begin to fishtail behind him into the far left lane. That’s where truck driver Raul Herrera happened to be rolling by in his Freightliner with a load of potassium hydroxide, a highly corrosive chemical. Even if Herrera had seen Thiam coming, he couldn’t have avoided the swerving trailer. A foot to his rig’s left was a concrete barrier and then an 80-foot plunge into the Ohio River below.
The first of Herrera’s double trailers collided with the back of Thiam’s load, and the two semis careened into a massive, tangled heap that ignited one or both of their fuel tanks and blocked all four lanes of the northbound deck. Miraculously, both truck drivers exited their cabs without serious injuries, but Herrera was in such shock he didn’t see that his rig was on fire. Thiam had to tell him to get clear as the blaze worked its way back toward his load of potassium hydroxide.
Other drivers entering the bridge, including a truck hauling a load of fuel, came to a stop as Herrera’s load caught fire and fed the blaze into a brilliant inferno. The flames spread out over the roofline of the bridge’s southbound upper deck, 15 feet above, burning at temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to compromise the strength of steel beams.
Covington police arrived five minutes later but couldn’t get close enough to see if anyone was trapped or injured. The heat was so intense it set their uniforms ablaze, says Covington Police Specialist Joseph Gier, who reviewed the accident report.
Covington fire crews arrived soon after but held off taking any action after spotting the HAZMAT label on Herrera’s trailer. Speeding over the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, Cincinnati firefighters joined the Covington crews already stationed on the Kentucky shore. When the chemical in Herrera’s load was identified, water boats were called to the scene with fire-suppressing foam. But their hoses weren’t powerful enough to reach the fire.
While the blaze continued unabated, motorists stuck on the lower deck of the bridge were directed to back up and turn around to the Fourth Street exit in Covington. Truck drivers were told to abandon their rigs so police could drive them to the nearest exits. Eventually, firefighters were able to reach the blaze by lugging hundreds of feet of hosing up an aerial ladder from the shore. The fire took almost two hours to extinguish.
The early morning nightmare could have been far worse. What if the accident had occurred at 2:45 p.m. rather than 2:45 a.m.? What if the truck drivers hadn’t been able to exit their cabs? What if the fire had reached the trapped semi with its load of fuel? And what if the earlier truck accident hadn’t slowed traffic as it entered the bridge?
The lesson from that near-tragedy a year ago is this: The Brent Spence Bridge is unsafe at any speed and has been for decades while local, state, and national leaders have done little to remedy the problem. From the moment the bridge opened a few days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, the three-lane, double-decker design was already on its way to being “structurally obsolete”—engineer-speak for inadequate to handle the flow of traffic, then 80,000 vehicles per day. Traffic from Interstate 71 was added to the bridge in both directions in 1970 with no additional lanes to handle the flow.
By 1985, congestion on what area residents were now calling the “Car-Strangled Spanner” had become such a bottleneck that traffic engineers were forced to eliminate its breakdown lanes and squeeze out a foot of width from each lane in order to create a fourth in both directions. With an average of 172,000 vehicles per day now crossing the bridge, more than twice what it was designed for, the results have been calamitous. The bridge corridor has an accident rate three to five times higher than the rest of the Ohio and Kentucky interstate systems. Each year, 650 calls for help are made by motorists stranded there, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Motorists unlucky enough to break down or run out of gas on the Brent Spence Bridge “have nowhere to go,” says Specialist Gier. In 2011, that was the fatal trap for Abdoulaye Yattara of Westwood. Yattara was headed south on his way to work in Florence when he ran out of gas. He got out of his car and was on the bridge when an oncoming minivan rear-ended the car that stopped to help him, knocking him over the side. He plummeted to his death in the Ohio River. Of the 142 accidents on the bridge from August 2008 to August 2011, just over half, or 72, were rear-end collisions, according to a 2011 study by traffic engineers.
Three presidents, including Joe Biden, promised to fix the bridge. And while Barack Obama and Donald Trump failed, Biden’s chances look good for delivering on his promise—and without charging the tolls so reviled by some Northern Kentucky residents—since Congress passed his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Federal funding under the bill would pay up to 80 percent of the nearly $2.8 billion needed to build a massive new bridge beside the Brent Spence and reconfigure the existing one. Ohio and Kentucky would have to kick in the remaining 20 percent over a 10-year period (dividing a total of about $560 million) instead of the 80 percent in local and state funds usually required for highway projects. At the local level, the city of Covington, where current plans for the new six-lane bridge would carve another huge swath from its neighborhoods, seems destined to take the hit for the rest of the region.
“The key part of this is how Kentucky and Ohio are going to make this work,” says Mark Policinski, executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), the tri-state’s transportation planning agency. “Kentucky hasn’t been in favor of tolls. Now the idea is if we can build this bridge without tolls, then these two states have to come up with their own contributions. It’s more doable, certainly, but they’ve got to get it right.”
A solution can’t come quickly enough for Cincinnati area motorists. For decades, they’ve cursed the bridge, named after Newport native and long-time Northern Kentucky congressman Brent Spence, who avowed he didn’t really deserve the honor. Each year, traffic backups in the corridor delay motorists by 3.6 million hours and waste 1.6 million gallons of fuel, according to Ohio and Kentucky transportation officials.
A 2015 OKI study found the bottleneck added an average of 30 minutes and $9 in time and fuel costs for daily trips across the bridge, costing regular commuters more than $2,200 a year. For truckers, the average cost in extra time and fuel is more than $47 a day. And the complaints have only grown louder recently, first with the six-week closure last fall to fix the damage from the truck explosion and then, starting in March, lane reductions for repainting the bridge that lasted until early November. Finding a way to get across the river in either direction has become a frustrating exercise in logistics.
Kevin Green, a data analyst who lives in Fairfield, changed jobs in January to escape the 50-minute trip to a client in Florence. It was either face the 7 a.m. logjam on the Brent Spence or take the long run around through Indiana on I-275, he says. “That got old doing it four or five times a week. It was just driving me nuts.” Green lasted a month before quitting.
Other Cincinnati area residents make a point of avoiding the bridge for safety reasons. In a Facebook post, Cindy Schrader of Columbia-Tusculum says she uses either the Clay Wade Bailey or drives the extra miles on I-471 for trips to the airport. “Northbound is especially scary…terrible signage and through traffic has no idea where they are or which lane to be in.”
Engineers and inspectors say the bridge is still structurally sound and will continue to be for years to come, thanks to the time-tested brawn of its cantilever truss design. But the reassurances from experts fail to keep visions of Mothman from fluttering before the eyes of residents like Beverly Reed of Mt. Auburn. “I value my life too much to trust it,” she posted on Facebook. “And I’m old enough to remember the Silver Bridge collapse [when a bridge over the Ohio River collapsed in 1967, killing 46 people]…. Trust your gut!”
Included in the new federal bill is the Bridge Investment Act that Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, has been trying to pass through Congress since early 2017. Republican Rob Portman joined Brown in that push starting in 2019. Together, the two Ohio senators were instrumental in allocating $12.5 billion in the infrastructure bill toward bridge rehabilitation and replacement.
A new competitive program will finally provide a federal grant large enough to cover up to half the cost of large bridge replacement projects. Kentucky and Ohio can also use their federal highway funds on top of that competitive grant. The total federal contribution could be up to 80 percent, to be determined between the U.S. Department of Transportation and Ohio and Kentucky transportation officials. Policinski believes the Brent Spence Bridge, infamous as a national transportation bottleneck, will have no problem winning one of the federal grants. “If you are someone working in infrastructure,” he says, “you know about the Brent Spence Bridge.”
The Brent Spence is now the second most congested truck bottleneck in the U.S., up from eighth just a year ago, according to rankings released in February by the American Transportation Research Institute. That’s hardly the kind of publicity needed for a region that likes to tout itself as a major distribution and logistics center. Antony Coutsoftides, CEO of Legion Logistics in Newport, says freight handlers try their best not to route trucks through Cincinnati or over the Brent Spence if it can be done without adding too much mileage. For freight that can’t avoid the I-75 crossing, he says, “we plan on adding an hour to an hour and a half because you don’t know if there’s going to be an accident or a breakdown on the bridge.”
Regional planners unveiled a detailed plan for the bridge fix as far back as 2011. It calls for revamping a 7.8-mile stretch of the I-71/75 corridor and building a new double-decker bridge just west of the Brent Spence to carry five lanes of southbound I-71/75 traffic on the upper deck and six lanes of northbound I-75 traffic and local southbound traffic on the lower deck. The Brent Spence would be refurbished to handle two lanes of northbound I-71 on the upper deck and three lanes of northbound local traffic on the lower deck. A decade after its release, the basics of the plan are still favored by regional planners and transportation officials, though the estimated cost has of course grown.
But those costs pale in comparison to the cost of doing nothing, a price tag that grows by the minute in fuel, construction costs, and lost economic opportunities for the region, not to mention accidents and lives lost. A 2012 study by Northern Kentucky University estimated the new bridge project would support 24,000 jobs in the Cincinnati metropolitan area over the 10-year construction phase and generate $1.9 billion in labor income here. In addition to the economic activity generated from the construction work, state and local jurisdictions stand to gain an estimated $193 million in tax revenues.
“BESIDES EASING DAILY COMMUTES AND TRUCKING DELAYS, A NEW BRIDGE WOULD PUSH GROWTH AT CVG, AN E-COMMERCE HUB THAT’S NOW THE COUNTRY’S SEVENTH LARGEST AIRPORT.”
Harder to put a number on, and perhaps just as important, is what a major new bridge will do for the continuing growth of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) as a center for e-commerce, Policinski says. “The driving force of our regional economy for the next 20 years is the airport,” he said. “It’s now the seventh largest in America, built on e-commerce from Amazon, DHL, and all the companies locating around it. And it’s not just about landing planes and getting trucks in and out. It’s about developing world-class technologies.”
Policinski says the CVG campus is already being used as an innovation center for companies around the world wanting to develop cutting-edge technologies for distribution and delivery, including driverless cars, drones, and hyperloops that propel vehicles through low-pressure tubes at airliner speeds.
Under the new bill, the economic impact of fixing the bridge is likely to be even greater than the original estimates, Brown says. “We have much stronger ‘Buy American’ provisions in the bill than we’ve ever had. Meaning it’s not just creating good union jobs to rebuild the bridge itself—iron workers and pipefitters and others—it also mandates that all the steel and all the cement will be American made.”
The infrastructure bill may at last be the federal godsend the region was hoping for, but national transportation expert Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress says Ohio’s and Kentucky’s political leaders could have solved the Brent Spence problem by now. Like Dorothy clicking her heels to return home, the money was always there but not the political will. “Congress has given Ohio and Kentucky a lot of money over the years, but they just haven’t spent it on the Brent Spence Bridge,” DeGood says. “What they’ve been hoping for all along is that the federal government will bail them out.”
Large infrastructure projects force state officials to make hard political choices, he says. “Governors and state transportation directors in Ohio and Kentucky would have to tell some of their respective Senate and House delegations, Sorry, for the next two years we have to put money into the Brent Spence Bridge and that means, for instance, your roadway widening and improvement project to support new housing developments will have to wait. So, if you do the Brent Spence, you’ve got to say ‘no’ to a lot of other projects and a lot of other legislators. Nobody wants to say that.”
Since the new bridge plan was made public a decade ago, both Ohio and Kentucky leaders chose to finance other expensive transportation projects with far less payoff for taxpayers. Although the population of Portsmouth, Ohio, has declined by half since the 1940s to around 20,000 people today, that didn’t stop the Ohio Department of Transportation and Gov. Mike DeWine from approving a $646 million, 16-mile, four-lane bypass around the small city in Scioto County as a dubious means of economic development for the area, DeGood says. The state funds would have been better spent cleaning up the area’s extensive brownfields, which are the true impediment to redevelopment, he says.
In Kentucky, state transportation officials and then-Gov. Matt Bevin decided in 2017 that adding lanes for Interstate 471 between U.S. 27 and the Ohio River was more important than rehabbing the Brent Spence and building a new bridge between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The bridge rehab and new build would have cost the state about $1.5 billion, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. The I-471 project came in at $1.8 billion.
A big reason state officials, particularly those in Kentucky, have shied away from prioritizing a fix for the Brent Spence mess is that it would mean taking the politically unpopular position of charging tolls to finance the project. That’s how state and local governments typically borrow money against issuing bonds to raise funds for big ticket transportation projects, DeGood says. “Everybody wants to operate under the delusion that you can build a nearly $3 billion bridge without having to toll it,” DeGood says. “Why? Because everybody wants to continue to get for free what they’ve historically gotten for free. But at some point local and state officials have this come-to-Jesus moment when they realize the only way this is ever going to get done is if we toll it.”
That epiphany for officials in both states came in 2015, when former governors John Kasich of Ohio and Steve Beshear of Kentucky announced tolls for a new Brent Spence Bridge. Months before the announcement, anti-tax groups were already rallying opposition, calling the tolls “a tax on working people” even though bridge commuters, not taxpayers, would be paying the proposed $1-a-trip fee as they would for any other service or convenience. Taking a cue from the protests, the Kentucky House voted 82–7 in 2014 to pass a bill prohibiting tolls on any federal interstate between Ohio and Kentucky. Bevin signed the bill. But when he changed his mind during a gubernatorial debate late in his 2019 campaign, Northern Kentucky voters threw their support behind his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, son of Steve Beshear.
The tolling plan was met from the very beginning with an onslaught of misinformation from opponents, including the lie that tolls would cost bridge commuters $10 a day, Policinski says. During a 2015 hearing in Covington City Council, “a guy was passing out cards to everyone attending the meeting that the tolls will be $5 each way, and what this would mean to their salary over a year. That [lie] immediately went into the DNA of Northern Kentucky.” In fact, commuters with an electronic pass would pay $1 each way and those without would pay $2, with light trucks paying $5.
In the end, Ohio and Kentucky leaders threw up their hands and decided to wait for the federal government to rescue them, DeGood says. That strategy—though costly in time, money, and lives—seems now to have finally worked thanks to the political “trifecta” of a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in Congress.
That wasn’t the case in 2009, Brown says, when he first tried pushing for additional federal funding for the bridge as part of President Obama’s stimulus package during the Great Recession. The final version of Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was scaled back by a Republican Senate to $787 billion, too little in the opinion of most economists to kick-start the economy at that time. “Some of that money went to bridges, but it wasn’t anything like the money now,” Brown says.
Trump, too, had promised to do something about the Brent Spence mess while he was in the White House, Brown says. “He looked me in the eye and said he was going to build it. And then in late 2017 [the Republicans] changed their minds and did a big tax cut, with 70 percent of the cuts going to the richest 1 percent of the people in the country. Infrastructure just got forgotten.”
Both Brown and Portman pushed the Bridge Investment Act in 2019 until it reached the influential Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. But it got no further, thanks to Mitch McConnell, who was then Senate Majority Leader and husband of then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.
The response to the 2020 pandemic created another opportunity for stimulus funding, and in March Brown reached out to Portman again for help with the bill on the Republican side. After two terms as a senator from Ohio, Portman had announced in January that he wasn’t seeking re-election in 2022 because “it’s harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress.” Portman agreed to lead the Republican negotiations “in part, because he wanted to put Ohio on a realistic path toward getting the Brent Spence Bridge project done,” according to an e-mail from his media staff.
Portman was able to sway 10 Republican senators to vote for the bill, but not Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who voted nay because he said the bill was tied to the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion “partisan blowout” social spending package. All three area Republican House members—Steve Chabot (Ohio’s 1st Congressional District), Brad Wenstrup (Ohio’s 2nd), and Thomas Massie (Kentucky’s 4th)—voted against it as well.
Not everyone in the region is thrilled with the prospect of a new bridge. Covington officials say the current plan will devastate its business community, stifle economic growth in Northern Kentucky, and destroy large swaths of its housing stock and tax base—four times as much area as the original Brent Spence Bridge did in the 1960s. “We’re not against progress,” says Covington City Manager Ken Smith, “but we don’t want to be the victims of progress either.”
In an opinion piece published on the city’s website in March, Covington elected officials, including Mayor Joe Meyer, argued that the proposed 16-lane, double-decker bridge complex is nearly a third bigger than needed and will increase southbound congestion where I-75 reverts to four lanes at Kyles Lane. Adding insult to injury, they wrote, the plan will reduce southbound access to Covington to a single exit with an entrance ramp back at the Cincinnati Museum Center, long before motorists can even see the city. If tolls become part of the fix, diverting motorists and truckers will flood the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge and wreak havoc on the city’s side streets.
Covington officials would prefer a plan that shifted the new bridge to another part of the region, preferably east and away from their own community. But Policinski says that’s no longer feasible. Environmental impact studies already completed for the original Brent Spence Bridge could be adapted to a parallel bridge west of it. Any other location would mean new environmental studies and adding years, perhaps a decade, in construction delays and hundreds of millions of dollars in costs.
But where Cincinnati has feared to tread, Louisville has gone boldly forth in the last decade. Local and state leaders in Kentucky and Indiana decided in 2009 that something had to be done about the bottlenecks at Louisville’s two outdated downtown bridges as well as the nearby tangled intersection of I-64, I-65, and I-71, dubbed “Spaghetti Junction” by locals. “The more we studied the problem, the more we realized it wasn’t a matter of ‘if,’ it was a matter of ‘how’ we were going to fix it,” says Charles Buddeke, the former chair of the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority. The 14-member panel of business and community leaders was charged by the governors of the two states with the unenviable task of coming up with a solution and a way to finance it.
Like the Brent Spence, emergency lanes had been eliminated on both Louisville bridges to increase traffic flow. But by the early 2000s, the bridges “were an enormous bottleneck. People didn’t know whether they were going to get home in 20 minutes or two hours,” Buddeke says.
The bridge authority held neighborhood meetings around the affected region every month for three years, took in what they heard, and modified their plans accordingly, Buddeke says. And although the same anti-toll protesters showed up at every meeting, including one who held a sign declaring somehow that “Tolls Kill!” the authority came to the conclusion that charging tolls was the only way forward in the midst of the Great Recession and limited government funds.
The authority struck a balance between charging a $1 toll for frequent commuters and shrinking the size of the project until it could be financed half by state and federal highway funds and half by toll-backed bond issues. In the end, the $2.3 billion project created a new I-65 bridge with six northbound lanes, straightened out Spaghetti Junction, rehabbed the existing Kennedy Bridge, and built a new East End Bridge eight miles upstream from downtown. The entire project was completed by 2016.
While Buddeke says “busloads of people, smart people” were behind the push for the new bridges, he still hears five years later from people thanking him for the project and “knowing what time they’re getting home each day.” The anti-tollers? “We don’t hear much from them,” he says. “The tolls became insignificant in the long run.” The ultimate credit, he says, belongs to then-governors Steve Beshear of Kentucky and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who took the political risk to get the job done.
Tolls or no tolls, the question is whether Greater Cincinnati, like Louisville, will find the political courage to remedy what has become a stenotic artery choking the region’s economic life blood and transportation safety. Brown says he’s hopeful. “Kentucky seems a bit reluctant, but Kentucky has to step up and do this,” he says. “We will see this bridge built.”