As Western Hills Viaduct ages, leaders wonder where they will get the $310 million to replace it

CINCINNATI -- Deep cracks and falling concrete may be unsettling to drivers who use the aging Western Hills Viaduct to get from the city’s West Side to Downtown each day.

While transportation experts insist the bridge is structurally sound they also agree the 85-year-old viaduct, that carries 55,000 vehicles a day, is quickly nearing the end of its life span.

Who pays to replace this half-mile long viaduct may soon become a $310 million problem for Cincinnati and Hamilton County leaders.

“It is one of worst bridges of its kind in the state and it needs to get fixed,” said Todd Portune, president of the Board of Hamilton County Commissioners. “We need to have a plan that … demonstrates to the general public what we’re going to do and the timetable we are going do it.”

Within a month, city and and county leaders expect to hold the first of several joint meetings on replacing the viaduct.

Portune has already pledged to set aside money each year for the Transportation Improvement District that can be used for a new viaduct. He would like to set aside $2 million in county funds each year, and hopes to eventually add $4.5 million in casino tax money each year to the fund.

“It’s (viaduct) in very poor shape,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus. “We need to get serious about this.”

A plate covers a crack in a ramp to the viaduct in 2015.

The Ohio Department of Transportation recently awarded the project a $10 million grant for early design engineering and right of way acquisition.

The only catch is the grant comes with a $2.5 million local match that city and county leaders are trying figure out how to pay for. So far, both sides say it will be a shared expense.

City and county leaders often have an acrimonious relationship when it comes to shared projects such as the Metropolitan Sewer District.

But so far both sides seem to working well together on the viaduct.

“I haven’t heard any bickering or arguing at all,” Driehaus said.

Portune credits a new Democratic majority on the board of commissioners as being willing to work with City Council, which is also mostly Democrats.

That may change when the city and county look ahead to funding the actual $310 million cost to replace the viaduct.

“The city and the county are not going to be able to fund the bulk of it. So we’re really going to have to get some infrastructure dollars from the state or the feds,” said City Councilwoman Amy Murray, who is chair of the city’s Major Transportation and Regional Cooperation Committee.

Even if leaders get an outside grant to pay for the viaduct’s construction, it will still require local matching funds.

Hamilton County engineer Ted Hubbard estimates the local share at $60 million.

“The challenge we have here – it is huge,” Hubbard said. “I do think we have to be extremely serious about looking for other revenue sources in order to pay for it.”

The Western Hills Viaduct will cost $310 to replace.

Hubbard hopes the state legislature will allow local governments to add a small fee on driver’s licenses in order to pay for infrastructure projects. A local tax on gasoline is another option, he said.

The cost to replace the viaduct is so high because the project is so complex. The seven-lane, 3,400-foot-long double-decker bridge spans a large railroad yard and connects to several major roadways.

Because it is such a main thoroughfare, local officials want to keep the current viaduct open while they build a replacement.

Portune hopes to tap private funding for the project from new developers who may want expanded highway or rail access. He also hopes to tap funding from the Ohio Rail Development Commission and the railroad companies themselves.

City and county leaders are pledging a unified front as they seek out state and federal funding because it greatly helps their chances of success, both sides say.

“It’s a top priority for the city every bit as much as it is for the county,” Portune said. “The only way were are going to get a project of this magnitude done is working together.”

Construction on a new viaduct is set to begin in 2025 and be completed in 2029, Hubbard said.

“We have to find a way to fund these projects because they continue to age whether we have the funding or not,” Hubbard said. “The bridge is structurally sound but it’s not in great condition. It’s in poor condition.”

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