COLUMN: Brent Spence Bridge a story of unrealized hopes, unfulfilled promises

Posted at 6:06 PM, May 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-15 18:08:04-04

It has been a long time since the Brent Spence Bridge wasn't considered "functionally obsolete."

It was 1998 when the Federal Highway Administration determined the bridge, while still structurally sound, was not accommodating traffic needs.

A lot has changed in the last 20 years, but we've still got the same, old Brent Spence Bridge -- despite a lot of talk over the years from elected leaders about improving the busy corridor.

A representative from the Ohio Department of Transportation -- one of two transportation agencies charged with planning for a new bridge -- updated Cincinnati City Council on Tuesday about the project's status.

It turns out not much has happened in the last four years. A lack of funding has been the primary obstacle, said ODOT engineer Charles Rowe.

A schematic of the new Brent Spence corridor configuration. (Courtesy of ODOT)

The last major milestone was in 2014, when the Ohio General Assembly approved the use of tolls for the project and began land acquisition from the city of Cincinnati. The Major Projects and Smart Government Committee approved of additional land acquisition in Queensgate -- about a fifth-acre -- as well as a recreation center in West End during Tuesday's hearing, moving the decision on to full council.

ODOT's plan includes refurbishing Queensgate Playground and Ball Field, but it will mean the ball field is closer to Court Street than it once was.

Political attention for the Brent Spence Bridge -- at least on the national scale it has earned now -- was initially a slow burn. It was 1998 that President Bill Clinton denied having a relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky -- only to admit later that year that was less than true and be impeached for perjury. Follow that with George W. Bush's two post-9/11 terms, which were dominated by campaign promises about national security and the war on terror.

It's no surprise an aging bridge between Covington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, didn't get immediate national attention.

It wouldn't be for about another decade that the Brent Spence became politicized by leaders on both the state and national level, once transportation departments and governmental councils began hatching a plan to improve not just the bridge but the interstates leading up to it in both directions, as well. 

In the 10 years since, what have we seen? A lot of talk, with -- everyone seems to agree -- very little action implemented beyond planning, which officially began in 2005, according to ODOT. It was after the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments identified the bridge as its top infrastructure priority a year earlier that planning began in earnest.

To be clear, transportation officials have studied the stretch of highway and gauged public opinion. Between 2007 and 2011, officials with ODOT and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet -- which owns the bridge -- held nearly 40 public hearings on the bridge and corridor. 

Yet the conglomeration of departments collectively known as the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor group have failed to win funding to pay for a project that's approaching a $3.5 billion budget: The group still lists the financing plan as "undetermined" on its website.

A new bridge will cost an additional $70 million each year lawmakers delay in allocating funding due to inflation, the group estimates.

As WCPO's sister podcast Decode DC previously reported, the bridge seems to have become the victim of some political muscle-flexing over the last decade. Here's a look back at some of the unfulfilled promises from recent elected officials and other political obstacles:

President Barack Obama

The 44th president was not subtle about making infrastructure -- second maybe only to health care -- a key focus of his first term, with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The law put aside almost $30 billion for highway and bridge projects.

Unfortunately, none of that money made it to the Brent Spence.

That didn't stop Obama two years later from using the bridge as a way to pitch his American Jobs Act. The Washington Post quoted Obama accusing then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of preventing a new bridge's construction by opposing the bill.

“Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge,” he said during a September 2011 rally in Cincinnati. “Help us rebuild America. Help us put construction workers back to work. Pass this bill.” 

That bill got caught up in political maneuvering and never passed. It's impossible to know if that bill would have meant a jumpstart to the Brent Spence Bridge's revamp.

President Donald Trump

The 45th president followed his predecessor's lead and made the Brent Spence Bridge a talking point during campaign visits to the region.

In a November 2016 visit to Wilmington, Ohio, Trump said, “We’re going to fix and invest in our inner cities, we’re going to bring jobs back to the inner cities." In that speech, he mentioned the Brent Spence Bridge specifically but didn't explain how he would pay for a new bridge.

"It's dangerous," he said. "We have a lot of bridges like that."

President Donald Trump during a June 2017 visit to Cincinnati. (WCPO)

Then, an unofficial Trump transition team list of "Emergency and National Security Projects" leaked. The Brent Spence was No. 2 on that list. The Trump camp quickly clarified the document had no official capacity.

Still, Trump's appointment of Elaine Chao -- McConnell's wife and a Kentucky resident -- as secretary of transportation seemed, at least, like a symbolic nod to the project.  

But it wasn't long into his first term that he missed an opportunity to acknowledge the Brent Spence. Trump visited the region in June 2017 to discuss "infrastructure." During the speech, he pledged $200 billion toward infrastructure investment. Trump spoke about several problems with locks and dams that have delayed barge traffic in the Ohio River and elsewhere. He said he would "reduce burdensome regulations," including environmental reviews to help projects get underway faster.

But he did not mention the Brent Spence Bridge during the speech (or the Western Hills Viaduct, another urgent infrastructure need for the region).

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear

The Buckeye State's current governor and the Commonwealth's former governor almost reached new ground in early 2015 when they unveiled their joint plan to pay for a new bridge next to the Brent Spence. 

Despite being the closest both states had been to the same page, their plan wasn't without controversy. That's because it contained what has since become a curse word in Northern Kentucky: tolls.

Though some referred to tolls as "creative financing," others argued tolls would put an unfair burden on Northern Kentucky commuters. Covington's own state representative, Democrat Arnold Simpson, fought hard against tolls. He argued that more Northern Kentucky residents cross the bridge into Cincinnati to go to and from work than vice versa. This would cause Kentucky residents to pay for more of the project than Ohio residents.

"Most, if not all, of the delegation in Northern Kentucky is against that funding mechanism. So, it's in a state of flux," Simpson told WCPO last year.

Simpson and others' stringent opposition to using tolls to finance the new bridge led the plan to die in the Kentucky Legislature.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin

The final nail in the tolls coffin might have been Gov. Matt Bevin's election in 2015.

Bevin ran on a platform of cutting government spending and actively campaigned as anti-toll, favoring solutions that wouldn't directly cost residents more money. Not long into his first term, he pushed through legislation that prohibits using tolls to finance any new bridge that connects Kentucky and Ohio.

Instead, Bevin says public-private partnerships -- sometimes called "P3 agreements" -- are the solution to the problem. It's a similar approach championed by President Trump on a federal level.

Bevin also campaigned on the Eastern Bypass proposal, which would redirect freight traffic around the region through Campbell County and into Clermont County before reconnecting with Interstates 275 and 71.

“It’s not one or the other," Bevin told WCPO in 2016. "In other words, even if there were to be a bypass, we still have to address the Brent Spence corridor. We are going to need a new bridge."

Bevin's opposition to tolls prompted criticism from Kasich, who commented publicly that Kentucky should stop looking for a "sugar daddy" to build the new bridge.

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