COLUMN: We might have a locks and dams problem, but we have an even bigger bridge problem

And it's not just Cincinnati's problem, either
COLUMN: We might have a locks and dams problem, but we have an even bigger bridge problem
Posted at 8:01 PM, Jun 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-08 12:11:30-04

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO.

CINCINNATI -- President Donald J. Trump spoke about a lot of things during his visit to the shores of the Ohio River Wednesday: laborers, builders, coal, health care, foreign spending and -- eventually -- our waterways and infrastructure, to name a few.

But there was one thing he puzzlingly left out of his speech about the region's infrastructure: the Brent Spence Bridge.

Trump's remarks came as part of a week-long series of speeches touted as "Infrastructure Week." Wednesday's speech navigated toward the nation's inland waterways -- that is to say, the rivers used to transport freight, and the locks, dams and levees that serve them.

Here's the thing, though: Yes, the nature of river transport means a problem here equals a problem there. But Cincinnati has a bigger problem -- a bridge problem. A big, $2.6 billion bridge problem sitting just a few miles downriver.

That's why it's noteworthy that not once did the president utter the words "Brent Spence" throughout the course of his 40-minute speech.

I had high hopes going into the speech. After all, during a campaign visit he promised to "fix" the 53-year-old span, which carries nearly 200,000 cars each day and an estimated 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product each year. Transportation officials have called Trump's ambitious $1 trillion proposal for infrastructure spending "good news."

READ MORE: Can Trump deliver on campaign promise to fix the Brent Spence

It's true: These systems need improvement. Trump hit the nail on the head when he said, "The country's rivers, like the beautiful Ohio River, carry the lifeblood of our country's heartland," referencing the high volume of exports and resources that travel through the country's inland rivers. "This critical corridor of commerce relies on a dilapidated system of locks and dams that is more than half a century old," he said.

You're not wrong on that, Mr. President.

But not a single mention of the Tri-State's infrastructure elephant in the room?

Perhaps Louisville would have made more sense for a location to talk locks and dams. Derby City is home to the Markland Locks and Dam, which showed their wear and tear when the locks failed to open back in 2009, 50 years after construction was completed. It took about six months and countless delays in freight delivery to fix that problem. 

Trump even made mention to that malfunction: "It wasn't a pretty picture," he said.

Meanwhile, local and state leaders have been working for more than a decade to find a way to pay to address the Brent Spence problem. The current proposal, jointly designed by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Ohio Department of Transportation, suggests building a sister bridge alongside the Brent Spence and widening both the north- and south-bound approaches on Interstate 75.

The 85-year-old Western Hills Viaduct poses a similar dilemma for the city of Cincinnati, locking leaders in a years-long struggle to find money to finance a replacement that's been estimated to cost around $300 million.

RELATED: Will 'sanctuary city' status mean less federal money for Brent Spence?
IN DEPTH: As viaduct ages, leaders wonder how they'll pay to replace it

Referring to the viaduct, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune's message was clear: "Do we have to do the Western Hills Viaduct all by ourselves?” Portune said in a previous interview with WCPO. "I'm going to answer the question by saying this: We shouldn’t."

"OKI's priorities remain focused on surface transportation projects, namely the Brent Spence Bridge," said Lorrie Platt, a spokesperson for the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Regional Council of Governments. OKI has been a key player in working to find a financing solution for the Brent Spence.

Naitore Djigbenou, deputy executive director of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's public affairs office, told WCPO about the role federal funding plays in their projects: "Any time infrastructure is discussed at a federal level, we're very interested, because it impacts the work we do," he said. The KYTC owns the Brent Spence Bridge.

At the same time, though, he said state and local agencies need to remain realistic. "For right now we're operating on what funds we can for sure count on," he said. "We're operating on realities now as opposed to speculating what funds could come down the line."

To reiterate, the nation's locks and dams serving its inland waterways comprise a critical need for U.S. infrastructure and commerce, and Trump made a good point when stating that a river barge can carry exponentially more cargo than a single semi tractor-trailer. Not to mention, a more robust and efficient waterway system could mitigate to a certain degree roadway congestion, like what the Brent Spence suffers from right now.

But I wonder what message it sends to the region's commuters that he didn't even bother to mention a heavily-used bridge that has been rated "functionally obsolete" and has demonstrated to make their drive to and from work literally more dangerous.

The president's focus on infrastructure could spell good things for the Brent Spence Bridge's future... but only if he's willing to talk about it.

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

Previous reports by WCPO contributor Steve Morrison and 9 On Your Side reporter Lisa Smith contributed to this column. This column does not represent their opinions.