CINCINNATI -- Tri-State commuters' biggest headache just turned into a migraine, at least temporarily, as routine repair work on the Brent Spence Bridge got underway.
Beginning 9 p.m. Friday, crews started setting up for a 60-day, three-phase project, which will include concrete resurfacing, repairs to some of the steel work, and upgrades to the drainage and lighting systems, among other routine maintenance.
Overnight lane closures will follow the third phase's completion for at least another three months.
At points throughout the weekend, commuters should expect to see the double-decker bridge reduced to one lane in each direction as crews set up the construction zones.
Starting Monday, motorists will see two-lane closures of varying configurations for the duration of the project. Certain entrance and exit ramps will see closures for the duration, as well.
Since the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and Ohio Department of Transportation's joint announcement last week about the upcoming work, anxiety has been growing among Tri-State commuters.
To ease your minds and help you plan for what's ahead, here are nine things you need to know about the Brent Spence Bridge construction project:
1. The bridge is not closing
This was the first rumor I saw circulating in the days following the announcement: "What, they're closing the Brent Spence Bridge for two months?!"
Will it slow traffic flow? Absolutely, probably doubling the distance of back-ups, especially during the morning and evening rush.
The reality: Two lanes of various configurations will be closed in both directions for the duration of the project, leaving two lanes in each direction still open, with traffic barrels set up to accommodate almost all off-ramps near the bridge that will see an exit lane change. (See below for more on that.)
2. Is this part of the bigger Brent Spence corridor project?
If this were the start of the ever-delayed Brent Spence Bridge corridor upgrade project, I think there would probably be a parade planned for Saturday afternoon. That plan -- put forward in 2014 by the KYTC and ODOT -- proposes lane widening on both approaches and building a sister bridge along side the existing Brent Spence.
Instead, the organization coordinating the project characterized the construction as "routine maintenance." Crews haven't done this kind of work since the late 1990s.
The project will clock in at about $10 million, with funding coming from both states. Compare that to the estimated $2.6 billion it will take to finance the bigger corridor project.
3. Sixty days, three phases
As for the specifics, the project will play itself out in three phases, with different lanes in both directions closing throughout the project.
Phase One will see the easternmost lanes, meaning the two left lanes on the southbound upper deck and the two right lanes on the northbound lower deck, closed.
Phase Two will close the middle two lanes in both directions:
Phase Three will close the westernmost lanes in each direction, the right two lanes on the southbound upper deck, and the left two lanes on the northbound lower deck.
Following the initial 60-day period, officials said recurring overnight lane closures will continue into November to complete the remaining work.
4. No matter what, plan for additional commute time
This is true even if you work to avoid the Brent Spence Bridge. Backups are expected not only to mean longer wait times on the road, but also to begin farther north along I-75 in Ohio and farther south along I-71/75 in Kentucky.
One of the lane closures that will remain throughout the duration of the project -- the exit ramp from I-71/I-75 southbound to Erlanger/KY 236 (Exit 184), near the Interstate 275 interchange -- is meant to preempt congestion that might start accumulating. The interchange involves rapid lane changes in order for commuters to make their exchanges, and that can make congestion that much worse in both directions.
5. Speaking of ramps closed for the duration of the project...
Four ramps will remain closed for the entirety of the 60-day project:
Ramp to I-71/I-75 southbound from Fort Washington Way (Cincinnati)
Ramp to I-71/I-75 southbound from Third Street (Cincinnati)
Fourth Street ramp to I-71/I-75 north (Covington)
Exit ramp from I-71/I-75 southbound to Erlanger/KY 236, exit 184 (Erlanger)
6. Of those ramp closures, I-71/I-75 South into Kentucky should have evening commuters wary
Probably the most creative alternatives to the Brent Spence Bridge for the commute home will have to come from those traveling from Downtown and Interstate 71 into Northern Kentucky.
That's because both the Third Street and Fort Washington Washington Way exits will close for the duration.
Transportation officials offered a few alternatives:
Short of taking Eighth Street and the Western Hills Viaduct into the West Side and double-backing onto I-75 South, maybe the most out-of-the-way of these alternate routes is hopping on I-75 North from Fort Washington Way, taking the Ezzard Charles exit, and then turning around, back onto I-75 South. That said, it's no secret that Ezzard Charles is also a congestion hot spot.
7. Be mindful of other nearby, ongoing construction projects
It almost seems like the transportation departments are piling on with the timing of this bridge maintenance -- but then again, when is there not a road project going on near the riverfront and urban core?
These projects will be continuing alongside the Brent Spence Bridge maintenance:
Thru the Valley project on I-75, between Ronald Reagan Highway and I-275
I-71 repaving and bridge re-decking near I-275
Lytle Tunnel in both directions on I-71
I-71 Martin Luther King Drive interchange
I-71 brick deck replacement just north of Lytle Tunnel
8. North in the morning, south in the evening
Delays will happen in both directions pretty much at any time of day, to be sure.
That said, the majority of local commuters using the Brent Spence Bridge are Northern Kentucky residents working in Ohio. This could impact in which direction congestion is worse and when. Namely, the horde of Ohio-bound Northern Kentucky commuters could mean major delays on the bridge's northbound lower deck during the morning rush.
Making things worse will be the closure of Covington's heavily-used Fourth Street on-ramp onto the northbound bridge, which is already a trick interchange to navigate. This could mean more commuters use the Clay Wade Bailey bridge, connecting the head of Covington's Main Street in Mainstrasse Village to Second and Third streets downtown.
It could also mean northbound Covington commuters divert south to Pike Street or Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, both of which connect to I-71/75 in both directions.
As for the evening rush, commuters should expect heavier delays southbound, on the bridge's upper deck. This remains to be seen, however, given the numerous alternatives commuters from Downtown and I-71 could take to get around the congestion.
9. Speaking of alternatives...
Here are some suggested alternatives to taking the Brent Spence Bridge, organized by origin and destination:
Downtown to I-71/75 South into Northern Kentucky:
Take Third Street to the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge (between the Roebling and the Brent Spence) and cross into Covington. Proceed down Main Street to Pike Street's southbound on-ramp.
Take Walnut Street to the Roebling Suspension Bridge and proceed west on Fourth Street toward the I-71/75 southbound ramp (this will remain open for the duration, as opposed to the NB on-ramp).
Take Interstate 471 into Northern Kentucky to I-275 westbound toward I-71/75
Northern Kentucky to I-71 North
From Covington, take the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge across to Second Street. Going east on Second Street, follow signs for Interstate 71 on-ramp into Lytle Tunnel.
I-71 South to I-71/75 South in Northern Kentucky
Take I-71 South to I-471 South into Northern Kentucky, to I-275, then westbound toward I-71/75
I-75 South to I-71/75 South
Depending on the distance of the backup, take one of the final exits before the bridge and navigate through Downtown to one of the other bridges.
Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).