What's next for city's aging bridges and walls?

Posted at 7:59 PM, May 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-24 19:19:41-04

CINCINNATI -- The city might not be suffering from osteoporosis just yet, but parts of its infrastructure continue to feel aches and pains as another round of budget decisions comes before City Council.

In a memo released late Friday afternoon, City Manager Harry Black called inadequate infrastructure funding a “national issue," and numbers released in his annual transportation infrastructure budget update show how starkly that's the case here in Cincinnati.

The city's bridge, retaining wall and stairway program reports outline maintenance and repair projects for the more than 200 bridges, 1,500 retaining walls and roughly 400 stairways inspected by the city's Department of Transportation and Engineering. Here are some of the basic figures to come out of the reports:

The city has a dedicated stream of money for infrastructure maintenance: a 0.1 percent income tax city voters passed in 1988. It came on the heels of the Smale Infrastructure Commission Report, which was developed by a high-powered independent committee chaired by Procter and Gamble's then-Chairman John Smale and included more than 100 recommendations to maintain the city's infrastructure.

Voters approved the tax with a condition that city spending on infrastructure meet a minimum threshold every year, or else the tax would expire. And budget documents show the city spends well above that minimum level: Of $61.9 million it's required to spend in 2017, Black's budget calls for $89.2 million in infrastructure spending next year. The single-biggest category is street repaving, which will use about $30 million; $10 million will go toward Music Hall renovations and nearly $2.5 million for parks repairs.

While much of Cincinnati's infrastructure is "satisfactory" or better, there are nonetheless several problem-children among them:

Bridges Maintain (For Now), as Budget Slips

Roughly $6 million was allocated to DOTE bridge projects between 2015 and 2016, according to the department's state-mandated bridge report issued earlier this month. But a large portion of that came from county coffers.

Capital funding for city-maintained bridges is expected to be just shy of $800,000 in city contributions for 2017, which represents roughly a $150,000 cut from 2016. The report called this amount “insufficient to achieve the program goals, and reliance on outside funding has been and will continue to be necessary."

A 2012 analysis recommended $2 million in city funds be allocated to bridge projects annually in order to keep up with maintenance needs.

Between 2015 and 2016, the average rating of bridges in Cincinnati dropped from a "good" rating to "satisfactory," which -- while a decline -- still satisfies the bridge program's goal, Black said. The city maintains 91 bridges, 65 city-owned and 26 county-owned vehicular and pedestrian bridges, which are all inspected annually. The city shares maintenance responsibilities with the Ohio Department of Transportation for five bridges over Fort Washington Way.

In Friday's memo, Black said the average in recent years was inflated by multiple new bridges built as part of development at The Banks along Cincinnati's riverfront, suggesting 2015's drop to "satisfactory" was more of a self-correction than anything else.

But then there's the Western Hills Viaduct.

Time and again during transportation committee meetings, the subject of the slowly fracturing connector bridge dominates discussion. Originally built in 1931 and last rehabbed in 1978, the viaduct serves as the primary artery linking the city’s western neighborhoods to its most central business districts and two biggest job centers.

While it didn't seem to get any worse over the course of last year, it's not getting any better, maintaining its "poor" rating going into 2016. It is one of three county-owned bridges with that rating, which is the lowest of all DOTE-inspected vehicular bridges within city limits.

West Side activist and business owner Pete Witte called the viaduct's current condition "scary and horrendous."

"Its current design is so outdated that it's very much problematic, especially for non-Westsiders to be able to access the area," Witte told WCPO.

Earlier this year, city engineers presented four potential plans to either repair or replace the viaduct, ranging in cost from $150 million to more than $300 million, some including increased accessibility for cyclists and pedestrians. The report projected a little more than $3 million would be spent on the aging bridge over the next several years, preparing for eventual repairs or replacement. Engineers have estimated they can reliably maintain the current viaduct through 2025.

Witte called that timeline "not acceptable at all."

"We're designing new bridges to access Cincinnati State at a considerable cost with still no proven benefit," he said.

But beyond the bridge's physical condition, Witte said he's just as worried what will happen should the bridge have to be shut down due to an emergency.

"My concern is that there's going to be that one day when it's on the radio or TV that the bridge is closed because an eight-foot chunk of concrete fell and crushed a car," he said, adding that he's concerned how access to the West Side would be choked without planning for redirecting traffic to alternative routes.

"A castrophic closure would be devastating," he said.

No city-owned vehicular bridges scored a rating below "fair," but the pedestrian bridge spanning Central Parkway at Music Hall -- which Black closed, previously calling it a "public safety risk" -- was listed in "serious" condition. That bridge is maintained by City of Cincinnati Parking Facilities, and does not depend on DOTE funds for repairs.

The other bridges in "poor" condition are the Kennedy Avenue bridge over Conrail tracks and the Marburg Avenue bridge over N&W Railroad, both also constructed in the 1930s. One DOTE-inspected bridge was listed in "critical" condition -- the Spring Grove Avenue Chessie Overhead north of Mitchell Avenue -- which is owned by railroad company, CSX Transportation, and emergency repairs there already have begun, the report said.

Cuts to Retaining Wall, Landslide Work

Funding to repair and replace the retaining walls is only about a third of what it used to be in the 1990s, going from more than $1.8 million in 1995 to $550,000 in 2016. And the program's maintenance money has been altogether eliminated.

More than half, 55 percent, of walls maintained by the transportation department are in good or excellent condition, while 39 percent are satisfactory, 5 percent are poor and 1 percent are considered in critical need of repairs.

The 10 walls in critical condition only account for about 0.6 percent of the 50 miles of walls the department maintains; another 74 in poor condition account for a little less than 6 percent of the total length. Nearly 1,500 walls fit into the satisfactory-and-higher ratings.

Other city departments' walls didn't fare quite as well, with only 49 percent rated in good to excellent condition; roughly 35 percent were satisfactory, while 16 percent were considered poor or critical.

So where were they? Walls in critical condition include those along:

  • Handman Avenue near Stanley Avenue (Columbia Tusculum)
  • Delta Avenue north of Kroger Avenue (Mount Lookout)
  • Hillside Avenue near Baurichter Street (Riverside)
  • Seegar Avenue near Fairmount Avenue (South Fairmount)
  • Lockwood Avenue (Lower Price Hill)
  • Maryland Avenue (East Price Hill)
  • Cummins Street near Dempsey Street (East Price Hill)
  • East Alley between Vine and Loth streets (Mount Auburn)
  • Elysian Place (CUF)
  • Hill Street (Mount Adams)
  • Bolivar Alley (Pendleton)
  • Columbia Parkway near Pike Street (Downtown)

Hillside Stairs Totally Unfunded for 2 Years

The city's hillside steps, one of Cincinnati's more unique features that include the well-known Mount Adams steps to Immaculata Church, may also be one of its most neglected.

There are 8 miles of hillside steps in Cincinnati, but for two years -- 2012 and 2015 -- the city didn't fund the program to inspect and fix them. And, according to the most recent report from the transportation department, there haven't been any regular inspections since 2012. Before then, each stairway was checked every four years; inspections are now done only when somebody files a complaint.

That means that nearly 75 percent of all the steps haven't been checked in four years for unsafe conditions.

Fixing the 146 stairways that are in fair or poor condition would cost more than $8.7 million, the transportation department estimates.

Funding in the last budget? Just a half-percent of that, or just $50,000. And that means, if it's found to be unsafe, closing a stairway is the only option until emergency repairs can be completed.


Christian Huelsman has spent four years cleaning up and advocating for city stairways and alleys through his nonprofit, Spring in our Steps. He compared the stairways to Union Terminal, also made of concrete and, until recently, facing similar issues of deterioration coupled with inadequate funding.

"Community councils need to take a strong stance against deterioration and preserve walkability, or they'll be overshadowed by other priorities," Huelsman said. "These are public projects, so developers aren't going to be furthering issues regarding our walkable infrastructure -- that has to come from our residents and business owners."

He points out that 42 of the city's 52 neighborhoods have hillside steps, many of them serving as links to public transit.

"They're a key part of our transportation network," he said. The Main Street Steps between Over-the-Rhine and Mount Auburn, for instance, link to schools and churches, and Huelsman said some kids use them daily.

According to the transportation department's report, steps are prioritized based on how much they're used and if they're a primary route for getting to a business or residence. Of the high-priority steps, nearly 60 percent are considered to be in excellent condition, and another 35 percent are fair to good; 91 percent are open. On the other hand, more than half of low-priority steps are considered to be in poor condition, and 60 percent of them are closed or considered abandoned.

Of the dozen high-priority stairways in the worst shape, the vast majority -- nine -- are in North and South Fairmount.



Michael Moore, director of the transportation department, said a few of the stairways -- such as the Geiger Street Steps -- lead to the dead-end of a street where the buildings have been demolished. Those probably should be moved out of the high-priority category, he said.

Pamela J. Adams, North Fairmount Community Council president, said the steps are still important to her neighborhood.

"The kids use them and I use them," she said. "But we have so many that are closed off."

The stairways would be used if they were open or kept in better condition, Adams said. But, like other chronic problems in her hillside neighborhood, the steps suffer generally from neglect: Some need better lighting; others need brush to be cut back. In other spots, thieves stole the railings.

"Now why would you steal the railings? It's stamped with 'City of Cincinnati' -- you can't take them anywhere. I just don't understand, why would you take all the time to dismantle this?" she said.

Railing theft is an ongoing problem, the city says, because people do try to sell it to scrap metal dealers. Newer railings can be made of fiberglass to cut down on theft.

The last major stairway project was in 2014, when stairs between City View Place and Emming Street in the CUF neighborhood were replaced at a cost of about $58,000. In 2015, a section of stairs between Liddel and Linden streets in North Fairmount was repaired, along with a damaged railing on steps above Concord Street in Walnut Hills.

With the roughly $49,000 left from this year's budget, the transportation department is looking to replace a stolen railing on the Staebler Street steps between State Street and Warsaw Avenue, and to remove a wall along the Straight Street steps after neighbors complained the wall hid criminal activity (city engineers found the wall didn't have any purpose).

In fact, sometimes, neighbors ask the city to close or remove a set of steps entirely, complaining about anything from litter to crime. So, some of this year's money will go toward removing steps and a walkway between Werk Road and Pickbury Drive in Westwood after frequent complaints from neighbors.

If there's any money left, it would go toward replacing a stolen railing on the stairway at West Eighth Street over Fairbanks Avenue.