Western Hills Viaduct replacement faces stiff competition for federal funding

Even some local projects could get in the way
Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-16 09:05:54-04

CINCINNATI -- For the first time, the city of Cincinnati is asking for federal help in replacing the aging Western Hills Viaduct.

But it didn't come without differing trains of thought between city and county officials. As recently as last Wednesday's City Council meeting, leaders were still weighing their options, with the Oct. 16 deadline just around the corner.

The 85-year-old bridge -- which is county-owned and city-maintained -- is one of multiple looming, multi-million-dollar projects facing Hamilton County. County commissioners are also looking for money to finally install decks overtop Fort Washington Way, as was the original plan for the highway's redesign nearly 20 years ago. In addition, FC Cincinnati is asking the county for $100 million to build a new stadium, in the hopes of becoming a Major League Soccer franchise.

The problem is, the county isn't exactly swimming in cash right now, causing a lot of competition among these projects.

Portune indicated to council last week the county's interest in pursuing a grant to partially fund the Fort Washington Way project, which would install decks over the highway in order to support mixed-use parcels. Portune said it could be one of the selling points the region would make to woo retail giant Amazon -- which is considering Cincinnati as a potential site for its new headquarters.

IN DEPTH: Does Cincinnati have what it takes to land Amazon headquarters?

The grant in question -- a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER grant -- comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation. If awarded, the TIGER would mean $15 million in federal dollars toward constructing the eastern and western approaches to the new bridge, as part of the 10-year project's first phase.

By the end of Wednesday's meeting, it was clear the viaduct replacement would be the sole focus of city and county federal grant requests. But there was pause by some City Council members after Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune told council he wasn't confident a grant request for the viaduct would win federal approval.

"There's a high probability of loss if we submit a TIGER application for the Western Hills Viaduct," Portune told WCPO, and that he believes the Fort Washington Way proposal stands a better chance at funding.

This, in part, is due to the competitive nature of these annual grant awards. The U.S. Department of Transportation has only $500 million to disperse to TIGER-eligible projects nationwide. 

It's a reality the city's director of transportation and engineering, Michael Moore, is keenly aware of: "TIGER is a very, very competitive grant program," he told city council last week. "This will be an extremely competitive process."

The city has applied for three previous TIGER grants since the Obama administration initiated the program in 2009, with requests made for the streetcar, the Wasson Way mixed-use trail project and the Elmore Street connector bridge project. Only the streetcar received TIGER funding.

Despite the county's concerns, City Council member and transportation committee chair Amy Murray insisted the city stay focused on the viaduct.

"I could not possibly put Fort Washington Way as a priority over the Western Hills Viaduct," Murray said. The idea of pursuing Fort Washington Way over the new bridge to Murray seemed like picking luxury over necessity.

"For me, the Western Hills Viaduct is a need, not a want," she said. "I think the county needs to look at what we're doing and decide if they're willing to change what they're looking at because I think we've got to take every chance we can to get the Western Hills Viaduct."

The bridge is still considered structurally sound but functionally obsolete by federal bridge guidelines. That is, it's in no immediate danger of failure, but its design cannot accommodate the roughly 55,000 cars it carries each day. While acknowledging the need for a replacement, transportation officials insist the bridge is safe to cross.

RELATED: What does 'structurally sound' even mean?
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Mayor John Cranley balked at the idea of applying for a grant to fund the Fort Washington Way decks, challenging the notion that they would entice Amazon.

"Amazon is looking for shovel-ready land," he said. "Even if we did win the grant, it would be three, four years until they could start building on the decks."

Council member and mayoral candidate Yvette Simpson worried what sort of message the region would send the federal government, if the city and the county submitted competing bids.

"I think we need to be rowing in the same direction here," Simpson said. "I'm worried what happens if the city presents one application, the county presents a different application."

Simpson came closest to considering Portune's recommendation.

"I don't think the county thinks (the Western Hills Viaduct) is less of a priority than we do," she said. "I think they're trying to figure out the best way to get money for the region, and if we can't win on the Western Hills Viaduct, I don't think they want to lose the money."

Moore remained confident that his department's grant application stands a good chance.

"This is the first set of TIGER grants to come out under the current presidential administration," he said. "We've heard from our federal lobbyists that roads and bridges are going to be much more heavily considered going forward than other projects had been in the past."

Challenges remain, though, particularly in proving the bridge's potential to bring economic revitalization -- a key element in the grant's objective.

"This is going to be one where we'll have to prove a negative," Moore said. "It is existing infrastructure, not new infrastructure. If we lose that infrastructure, the cost to losing that infrastructure, when you're having people re-routed, taking more time from their day to get to work, to get to school, to get home, is going to be significant."

Portune said the city's strong insistence on the Western Hills Viaduct compelled him and his board to direct the county administration to begin drafting letters of support for the city's grant application.

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