The Brent Spence Bridge is 'functionally obsolete,' but what does that even mean?

Posted at 12:00 PM, Feb 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-09 12:00:32-05

COVINGTON, Ky. -- No, the Brent Spence Bridge is not in danger of collapsing -- at least not anytime soon.

Contrary to a waning but still prevalent belief, the aging bridge that carries Interstate 71/75 over the Ohio River -- connecting Cincinnati and Covington -- is in need of repair at least and replacement at most. As it stands now, it's not in danger of falling into the water.

The notion that the Brent Spence is falling down reached a fever pitch in 2014, when chunks of concrete fell from the ceiling onto the bottom, northbound deck of the bridge.

Commence the "sky is falling" mentality.

While leaders remain locked in a political battle over what is the best course of action, most if not all agree that something needs to be done with the bridge. National news outlets and political leaders alike have identified the Brent Spence as a major infrastructure "emergency. Even President Donald J. Trump vowed on the campaign trail to fix the bridge, which was built in 1960.

IN DEPTH: Can Trump deliver on campaign promise to 'fix' Brent Spence Bridge?

Officials with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the agency charged with the bridge's upkeep, has said on multiple occasions that the Brent Spence Bridge is "structurally sound" but "functionally obsolete." It's this "obsolescence" that leaders cite when explaining why the corridor between Dixie Highway in Fort Wright, Kentucky, and Cincinnati's Queensgate neighborhood -- including the bridge -- needs revamped.

But what does "functionally obsolete" even mean?

For a term that might sound ambiguous, it's actually quite specific. Boiled down, the term "functionally obsolete" refers to a piece of roadway that cannot accommodate the traffic it carries, according to local KYTC spokeswoman Nancy Wood.

"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," Wood told WCPO via email. The bridge conveys just short of 200,000 vehicles per day and an estimated 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product every year.

Part of what makes the bridge functionally obsolete is that the span -- in both directions -- no longer offers emergency lanes, often referred to as shoulders. Travel lanes extend as wide as inches from the bridge walls, and this poses a safety hazard, KYTC officials said.

RELATED: Brent Spence called 'No. 1 infrastructure emergency' in U.S.

Originally, the Brent Spence Bridge had 4-foot shoulders in both directions, but even that wasn't wide enough to constitute a full emergency lane, Wood said. Those were eventually removed in the 1980s to accommodate additional travel lanes.

The Brent Spence's functionally obsolete status sets it apart among Greater Cincinnati's bridges that cross the Ohio River, but it's not alone within the KYTC's Northern Kentucky district. Wood said her district maintains about 1,200 bridges throughout Northern Kentucky, and there are multiple conditions that could render a bridge obsolete.

"It could mean that the shoulder width may be narrow," as is the case with the Brent Spence, Wood said, or, "the lane width is too narrow, the vertical clearance, (risk of) flooding."

For example, she said, the KYTC recently replaced a bridge along Petersburg Road (Ky. 20) spanning Woolper Creek in Boone County because frequently the creek would flood the roadway. 

Oftentimes bridges considered functionally obsolete age into that status, Wood said. 

"We wouldn't build a bridge like that today," she said. "Bridges built 50-plus years ago don't meet today's standards."

The Brent Spence was built only a few years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, authorizing the construction of the nation's interstate highway system.

"The interstate system was just beginning. They didn't have anything to go off of," Wood said.

That said, Wood and her colleagues consistently emphasize that, if the Brent Spence -- or any bridge in their jurisdiction -- were not safe to drive across, her agency would close it to traffic.

READ MORE: New Louisville bridges re-ignite toll debate over Brent Spence

"The term 'functionally obsolete' doesn’t mean that the bridge is not safe or that the structure is compromised," she said. Because of frequent congestion and the lack of any shoulders, though, the bridge has seen more than its fair share of collisions.

As it stands now, the KYTC and the Ohio Department of Transportation have put forth a proposal to build a sister bridge spanning the Ohio River alongside the Brent Spence Bridge, and to widen the roadway between Dixie Highway and the Western Hills Viaduct. The estimated cost is roughly $2.5 billion, but leaders still do not agree on how the project should be financed.

Both transportation agencies estimate that every year the Brent Spence Bridge corridor remains in its current state, the cost to fix the congested bottleneck increases by $70-80 million.

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