COLUMN: A 'sound' bridge does not necessarily mean 'safe' bridge

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO.

Another Cincinnati commute, another fallen chunk of concrete.

That was the story Tuesday, as crews closed the 85-year-old Western Hills Viaduct for several hours after concrete debris fell onto the bottom, eastbound deck. The debris fell and hit a motorist's windshield before cleanup crews came in to remove additional, potentially troublesome bits of nearby concrete before they could fall.

The incident was the continuation of Tri-State commuters' growing weariness of the region's aging bridges (and roads, too). It's a feeling that's growing in contrast to transportation officials' refrain that bridges like the Western Hills Viaduct and the aging Brent Spence Bridge need addressed but are still safe to cross.

READ MORE: Fallen debris closes Western Hills Viaduct

In one important way, the officials are right: Neither of these bridges is in any danger of collapse, at least not anytime soon. They're "structurally sound," officials say.

Crews remove potentially hazardous concrete chunks before they fall onto the roadway, following a chunk of concrete fell onto the Western Hills Viaduct, July 18, 2017. (WCPO)

But does that mean they're safe?

It's a good bet that if you asked the driver whose windshield was smashed Tuesday afternoon, or the drivers who swerved to avoid concrete chunks falling onto the Brent Spence Bridge in 2014, or the motorist who was knocked over a ramp guard wall while entering the Brent Spence in 2015 -- not to mention the bicycle and pedestrian commuters trying to use the Viaduct every day -- they would all agree -- no, they're not safe.

The disconnect comes from the way transportation officials talk about bridges compared to how everyday commuters perceive and, on some unlucky occasions, experience them.

To be sure, incidents like Tuesday's are few and far between. It's worth addressing a still pervasive myth about these bridges: They are not -- repeat, are not -- about to collapse. Leaders resoundingly agree that the bridges need to be addressed.

But the way we talk about these bridges might be inhibiting their progress toward improvement.

'Sound' but not 'safe'

The simple truth remains that the bridges' respective ages, combined with increased auto traffic, make them more hazardous to drive than the alternatives, if an alternative exists. The Western Hills Viaduct remains the primary artery into Cincinnati's West Side, with few options that do not require major diversions.

Some of it comes down to how federal regulations rate a bridge's structural integrity. Both of these bridges are rated "structurally sound but functionally obsolete."

"Relating to (the Brent Spence Bridge), that means that it no longer addresses traffic demands of the corridor. It’s over capacity of its intended design," said Nancy Wood, spokesperson for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, in a previous interview.

IN DEPTH: What does 'functionally obsolete' even mean?

This plays out most notably on the Brent Spence Bridge. When the span opened in 1963, the design accommodated around 80,000 vehicles and provided three travel lanes in each direction. In the 1980s, in order to accommodate increasing traffic volume, each deck was widened to four lanes, eliminating each level's emergency lane and narrowing the travel lanes. Today, upwards of 200,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, almost triple its originally intended capacity.

This means an increase in congestion, which often leads to an increased risk of collision.

All this suggests that we need to find a middle ground in the way we talk about bridge conditions.

PODCAST: Brent Spence a poster child for stop-and-go bridge politics

Seeing is believing

For some drivers it can come down to visuals, especially in the Western Hills Viaduct's case.

"Especially recently, you can really see a decline,” motorist Cat Bolen said after Tuesday's closure. “What if someone had been walking?"

A crack in the concrete wall on a ramp connecting to the Western Hills Viaduct, captured in January, 2017 (Submitted to WCPO by Jacqueline Ennis via Facebook)

A crack in the concrete wall along a ramp connecting to the Western Hills Viaduct caused a stir in January, prompting the increasingly common outcry from motorists and reassurances from transportation agencies.

Jacqueline Ennis first noticed the crack and told WCPO, "It's a real concern for me because so many cars go under that bridge going both north and south."

The media is not without fault in the matter of perception, particularly with the use of the word "crumbling" to describe the condition of these bridges. While not necessarily inaccurate, it suggests they are in a constant state of falling apart, when the reality is that these incidents are not all that common -- not yet, anyway. 

Out of sight, out of mind

Cincinnati City Council member Amy Murray knows all too well West Side communities' concerns about the Western Hills Viaduct. Murray heads up council's transportation committee.

"You know, they say that the bridge is structurally sound, but that's just referring to the steel beams holding the structure in place," she said. "You can't have concrete falling off the bridge."

Murray said when she makes visits to community council meetings in West Side neighborhoods, she puts out a separate sign-in sheet for residents who are attending specifically to discuss the Western Hills Viaduct. Concern over the bridge's condition goes up and down, she said.

"I hear concerns about the bridge," she said, "but unless something happens, people are quiet about it. It wasn't like with the streetcar, when we had hundreds and hundreds of people come out consistently."

The Brent Spence Bridge might suffer the opposite problem: a traffic-jam of opinions on how to fix the overworked corridor and a flurry of misinformation.

There are some who still think the plan is to tear down the existing bridge. There are some who think tolls could cost as much as $4-5 each way -- a claim toll supporters have denied. There are some who say a bypass through Campbell and Clermont counties would be a better option, an idea that has been floated but not studied.

Meanwhile, as political leaders, transportation officials, advocates and lobbyists all debate how to get these projects done, everyday motorists seem to be seeing something different entirely.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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